Tennessee football returns most of its record-breaking offense from last season and key players on its defense.
But that doesn’t mean the depth chart is solidified. The Vols head into the 2022 season with some position battles still open, so expect some experimental moves against Ball State in the opener on Sept. 1.
Here is our projected depth chart with key contributors at each position.
The starter: Hendon Hooker, r-Sr.
The reserves: Joe Milton, r-Sr.; Tayven Jackson, Fr.
Hooker broke numerous UT records last season. Milton is a serviceable backup. Jackson needs to play to prove he can challenge for the starting job in 2023.
PHOTO GALLERY: Tennessee football practice, August 17, 2022
The starter: Jabari Small, Jr.
The reserves: Jaylen Wright, So.; Dylan Sampson, Fr.; Justin Williams-Thomas, Fr.
Small could rush for 1,000 yards if he can stay healthy, but he needs help. Depth could be a concern with only four scholarship running backs.
The starter: Cedric Tillman, r-Sr.
The reserves: Ramel Keyton, Sr.; Jimmy Holiday, Jr.
Tillman is a 1,000-yard receiver and one of the best in the SEC. But he needs other wideouts to step forward to ensure he gets the same opportunities as last season.
The starter: Bru McCoy, r-Jr.
The reserve: Walker Merrill, So.
Assuming USC transfer Bru McCoy is declared eligible, he’ll need to shake off the rust of not playing in 2021. Merrill is sure-handed and could start whether McCoy is eligible or not.
The starter: Jalin Hyatt, Jr.
The reserves: Squirrel White, Fr.; Jimmy Calloway, r-So.
Hyatt is due for a breakout season, and that’s desperately needed for this unit to thrive. White’s speed could flash for a few big plays, but he’s a wild card for now. If Calloway can earn the coaches’ trust, he’ll be a factor. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The starter: Jacob Warren, r-Sr.
The reserve: Princeton Fant, r-Sr.
These are co-starters depending on formation and role. If the receiving corps struggles early, Warren and Fant could be popular targets in the passing game.
The starter: Jeremiah Crawford, Sr.
The reserve: Gerald Mincey, r-So.
These will be co-starters early in the season until their game performance decides the competition. It’s a very important position because four starters return on the offensive line, and Hooker’s blindside must be protected.
The starter: Jerome Carvin, Sr.
The reserve: Ollie Lane, r-Sr.
Carvin is the team’s most consistent and valuable lineman, starting 30 games at three positions. Lane is an experienced backup at guard, and he can also play center.
The starter: Cooper Mays, Jr.
The reserve: Addison Nichols, Fr.
Mays is a returning starter. But he missed five games due to injury last season, so health is a concern. Nichols is a future starter at center or guard. But in a pinch, Carvin likely would slide to center while the line reshuffled.
The starter: Javontez Spraggins, Jr.
The reserves: Jackson Lampley, r-Jr.; Savion Herring, Jr.
Spraggins, a returning starter, already was a powerful run blocker. But offensive line coach Glen Elarbee has praised his progress in pass protection. Lampley got valuable playing time in 2021 after injuries hampered his first two seasons. Herring is a junior college transfer.
The starter: Darnell Wright, Sr.
The reserve: Dayne Davis, r-Jr.
Wright, a former five-star recruit, moved from left tackle to right tackle. He could play his way into the NFL Draft, and the Vols need that level of play. Davis is a versatile backup who can play guard or tackle.
Strongside defensive end
The starter: Tyler Baron, Jr.
The reserves: LaTrell Bumphus, r-Sr.; Dominic Bailey, So.; Tyre West, Fr.
Baron moves from weakside to strongside, which requires a more physical style. He must be a pass-rushing threat and serve as a key run-stopper. Bumphus can play here or inside. West could play his way into the rotation.
The starter: Omari Thomas, Jr.
The reserves: Elijah Simmons, r-Jr.; Bryson Eason, r-So.
Thomas is probably the most consistent interior defensive lineman. But the unit will only be as good as its depth. Eason has shown signs of promise. Simmons has tremendous athleticism for a 340-pounder, but he has struggled through injuries.
The starter: Da’Jon Terry, r-Jr.
The reserve: Kurott Garland, r-Sr.
Terry has steadily improved since transferring from Kansas last season. Garland is a known quantity with 40 games played, mostly as a backup.
Weakside defensive end (Leo)
The starter: Byron Young, Sr.
The reserve: Roman Harrison, Sr.
Young is a preseason All-SEC first-team selection who had 11½ tackles-for-loss and 5½ sacks, tied for the team lead. Harrison is an experienced backup with 34 games played, and numerous freshmen could be factors later in the season.
The starter: Aaron Beasley, Sr.
The reserve: Juwan Mitchell, r-Sr.
Beasley had 84 tackles last season as the starter. Mitchell led Texas in tackles in 2020 but missed most of last season at UT due to injuries. The Vols need more consistency here, either from an improved Beasley or a healthy Mitchell.
The starter: Jeremy Banks, r-Sr.
The reserve: Solon Page, r-Sr.
Banks was UT’s leading tackler with 128 last season, and he shared the team lead in tackle-for-loss (11½) and sacks (5½) with Young. If he can limit personal fouls, Banks could be an All-SEC performer. Page is a sixth-year player who can play either linebacker spot.
Nickel back (Star)
The starter: Tamarion McDonald, Jr.
The reserve: Wesley Walker, r-Jr.
Consider these co-starters, and Trevon Flowers may play here, as well. McDonald, a key special teams contributor, earned his chance with a strong offseason. Walker started at nickel back at Georgia Tech last season. This is a vital position, so all options are open.
The starter: Warren Burrell, Sr.
The reserves: Brandon Turnage, r-Jr.; Dee Williams, Jr.
Burrell, a returning starter, is a safe choice among several options. Turnage will play the dime position, but he could help at any spot in the secondary. Williams is a junior college transfer who could play into the rotation as the season progresses.
The starter: Kamal Hadden, r-Jr.
The reserves: Christian Charles, So.; De’Shawn Rucker, So.
Hadden is talented, but he’s trying to catch up after an injury limited his reps in preseason practice. Charles moved from safety to cornerback in the spring. They’ll share time and possibly both start.
The starter: Trevon Flowers, Sr.
The reserve: Doneiko Slaughter, Jr.
Flowers is a valuable member of the secondary, which must improve after ranking last in the SEC in pass defense. He is a two-year starter at safety, a productive tackler, team leader and an option at Star position. Walker, the Georgia Tech transfer, could also play here.
The starter: Jaylen McCollough, Sr.
The reserve: Andre Turrentine, r-Fr.
McCollough is a veteran with 27 career starts and a team-high three interceptions last season. Turrentine, an Ohio State transfer, needs time to grow. Turnage could play here, as well.
The starter: Chase McGrath, r-Sr.
The reserve: Toby Wilson, r-Sr.
McGrath made 12 of 16 field goals and a school-record 66 of 66 PATs in his first season at UT after transferring from USC. Wilson is the kickoff specialist who filled in as placekicker in 2020.
The starter: Paxton Brooks, Sr.
The reserve: Kolby Morgan, r-Fr.
Brooks, a preseason All-SEC selection and NFL prospect, serves as the primary punter for a fourth straight season. Morgan punted four times last season.
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.