Neyland Stadium erupted last Saturday early in the first quarter as true freshman quarterback Brian Mauer connected with Marquez Callaway for a 73 yard bomb. It was Tennessee’s longest passing play for a touchdown since 2015. I can only imagine Vol fans everywhere turning to the words of the great Derek Shepherd (McDreamy) to describe Mauer, “You were like coming up for fresh air. It was like I was drowning and you saved me.” In all seriousness, it’s been a rough go for UT this season with gut wrenching losses to Georgia State and BYU in weeks one & two. Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano manned the controls for those two games and was expected to build on big time SEC wins against Auburn and Kentucky last season. That is, until he didn’t. It quickly became apparent that the lack of consistency in offensive coordinators and overall coaches in UT’s system may have spoiled what most thought was an elite talent. With a fan base ready to implode, the only choice was to turn Mauer loose for his first start against #3 ranked Georgia.
The moment didn’t seem to be too big for the 3-star prospect from Ocala, Florida. Tennessee’s first drive stalled, and Georgia pounded their way to six with downhill running from a steeple of backs and precision passing from veteran quarterback Jake Fromm. Mauer and the vols responded with the aforementioned deep ball and Neyland unleashed the energy it’s been forced to hold in all season. On UT’s next drive, Mauer found Knoxville’s favorite, Jajuan Jennings, across the middle for a 12 yard touchdown that pushed Tennessee out front 14-10 early in the second quarter. Tennessee wouldn’t score again the rest of the game with the final score being 43-14 in favor of Georgia.
You must be asking yourself, how could a fan base be excited about a 29 point loss? The short answer is because for the first time all season, UT didn’t resemble a lower level division one program. For two quarters they hung with the best of the best with an 18 year old QB at the helm. This fan base yearns for a contender, and they saw just enough spark out of the 205 first half passing yards from #18 to stay interested. But the absolute grit shown from the defense, led by true freshman middle linebacker Henry To’oto’o, is why they’ll continue to fill the stadium with 102,455.
Saturday’s match-up with Mississippi State gives this young Tennessee Football team an opportunity to continue to grow in the shadow of a 1-4 start. Mississippi State (3-2) has had their own troubles at quarterback this season. State has been splitting time between Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader thus far. I would honestly expect both to see action Saturday while the pair are currently dealing with lower extremity injuries. Tennessee’s passing defense has been a strong point this season, allowing only 209.6 yards per game. In a game where turnovers could be the difference, I expect UT to try to make State’s injured QB’s leave the pocket as a result of pressure and make poor decisions. Even with that said, the question of depth at inside linebacker still hangs in the balance. Many inside of Tennessee’s program hope former All-American JJ Peterson can carry some of the load as he becomes more fluid and comfortable in Pruitt’s defensive system. Many expect Tennessee’s defense to show and fight regardless of depth, but the offense is still where most of the questions lie. Will we see deep, vertical, pressure applied by Mauer downfield like the first half against Georgia? Or will the youth and the lack of discipline result in penalties that will down the Vols for the fifth time in almost as many weeks? Those questions will be answered at high noon on Saturday.
The team seems to be most explosive when Mauer is at the helm and true freshman running back Eric Gray is receiving feature carries. Gray has struggled in pass protection at times this season, resulting in veterans Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler continuing to eat into Gray’s touches, often times rendering him obsolete and lost in the crowd. It’s clear Gray is the most talented of the bunch, whether he will be able to distance himself from the others is still yet to be seen. The receiving group, including tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, is stocked full of talent. I expect Callaway and Jennings to continue to see the bulk of work, but don’t be surprised to see newcomer Ramel Keyton get a few more touches in the coming weeks. With the spark Mauer has brought throwing the ball downfield, the receiving core should be licking their chops in anticipation of Saturday’s match-up. The offensive line is finally starting to play at a respectable level and it seems Jeremy Pruitt has found a rotation that he likes. The “dive-stretch” running scheme has been UT’s bread & butter this season, and I expect them to try to establish the run early, with deep shot play action calls to follow. Tennessee’s offense should see exponential growth weekly with Jim Chaney calling the shots and Mauer settling in as the permanent starter, but only time will tell.
One thing is for certain though, the Tennessee Fans will fill Neyland, like they always do. And remind us all one more time how special it is to be drenched in southern college football pageantry. An opportunity for a season changing win awaits, how Pruitt & Co. respond to that opportunity will continue to define their legacy in this dark time of Tennessee football tradition.