7 way-too-early predictions for Tennessee's offense in 2022
In 2021, Tennessee’s offense was a serious problem for opponents. The Vols averaged 39.3 points per game, 7th-best in the nation. They racked up 474.9 yards per game, ranked 9th in the country.
Josh Heupel’s system has worked everywhere he’s been, and it certainly is getting the job done with the Vols. This was a far cry from the offenses that plagued the abbreviated Jeremy Pruitt era.
True, they will sorely miss wide receiver Velus Jones Jr., who was just picked in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. Also, offensive lineman Cade Mays was taken in the 6th round by the Carolina Panthers. But there is enough talent on that side of the ball for the Vols to continue to rack up points.
Time to present 7 way-too-early predictions for the Vols’ offense in 2022.
1. Hendon Hooker will be one of the SEC’s most efficient quarterbacks
In 2021, Hooker completed 68.2% of his passes, threw for 2,945 yards, and had a 31-to-3 TD pass to INT ratio. Those are numbers that will be tough to match.
But Hooker will have a lot of help and his upcoming achievements will put his name up there with Alabama’s Bryce Young in the top echelon of SEC quarterbacks.
What’s the ceiling? Well, the Vols haven’t had a 3,000-yard passer since Tyler Bray threw for 3,612 in 2012.
Kentucky is the only other SEC program that hasn’t produced a 3,000-yard passer in that span. Both programs are in good shape to end that drought in 2022, but look for Hooker to have an easier time clearing the the mark.
2. Jabari Small rushes for over 1,100 yards
When Tiyon Evans left the program late last season, he was the Vols’ leading rusher. Turns out, Tennessee didn’t miss him that much. The best of those who picked up the slack was Jabari Small.
The rising junior finished the season with 797 rushing yards, including a whopping 180 yards against Purdue in the Music City Bowl.
The Vols will give Jaylen Wright and Len’Neth Whitehead their touches, and Hooker will certainly get his share of rushing yards.
But Small will be the go-to guy in the Tennessee rushing game. He’ll become the first Vols RB to crack 1,000 yards since Jalen Hurd in 2015.
3. Cedric Tillman leads SEC in receiving
Perhaps no one player benefited more from the Heupel’s hiring than wide receiver Cedric Tillman.
Fairly anonymous during his first 3 years in Knoxville, Tillman caught 64 passes for 1,084 yards and 12 TDs in 2021, all team highs.
No, Tillman isn’t a secret anymore. And yes, he will get even more attention with Jones now with the Bears. But Tillman will be Hooker’s primary option and will have every opportunity to build on those stats from a year ago.
4. Tight ends grow in offense
Heupel is a smart guy. He finds ways to get players open better than just about anyone in college coaching. He also knows that he needs to find ways to involve his most talented players.
Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren are 2 of the Vols’ top 4 leading pass catchers. Yes, they play tight end and are extremely valuable blocking in the rushing game. But I expect their combined catches this season to go up from 34 in 2021 to at least 50 in 2022.
5. Jalin Hyatt doubles his receptions
It isn’t that Jalin Hyatt has struggled … it just feels like there is so much more that he could contribute as he enters his 3rd season.
Hyatt went from 20 catches in 2020 to 21 grabs in 2021. Last season Tillman and Jones received most of the opportunities, but Hyatt should be a bigger part of the passing game this season. Look for him to make at least 42 catches this season.
6. Tayven Jackson moves to 2nd on depth chart
Joe Milton won the starting quarterback job in 2021, only to see Hooker take the gig and never give it back.
Tennessee knows it has in Milton, but they really want to see what true freshman Tayven Jackson can do. We didn’t get to watch Jackson perform in the Orange and White Game as the spring scrimmage was canceled this season. But Jackson by many accounts was impressive this fall.
At some point in the 2022 season, he will be the first call should the need arise.
7. Vols will surpass 2021’s scoring 39.3 points per game average
This is easier said than done. Opponents will have had a full year to get used to facing Heupel’s offense. And UT will face some good defenses along the way.
I just think that this offense will continue clicking at historic levels. Hooker, Small, Tillman, plus an experienced offensive line should equal at least 40 points per game this fall. That would be historic.
The program record for points in a season is 473 in 2016. That team averaged 36.4 points per game. The 1993 team set the record for the highest scoring average in a season (42.8). That squad scored 471 points in 11 games.