KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s SEC Media Days snub could be coach Butch Jones’ gain, as the Vols don’t figure to lack for bulletin board material entering the 2017 season.
Not one of the 242 media members picked Tennessee to win the SEC, and while 10 Alabama players were selected first-team on the preseason all-league team, the Vols were shut out.
It’s worth noting Tennessee set a single-season record for points and yardage last season and did not have any players selected first-team All-SEC.
First-year Vols offensive coordinator Larry Scott will have a new quarterback behind center, likely junior Quinten Dormady, and there’s precious little proven talent returning at the skill positions.
An offensive line that returns seven players with 111 starts between them will be counted on to lead Tennessee.
Here are five offensive players, including a special teams standout, that could be first-team All-SEC by the end of the 2017 season.
No. 1 RB John Kelly
The competition in the SEC at this position is stiff — LSU’s Derrius Guice and Georgia’s Nick Chubb have Offensive Player of the Year potential — but Kelly figures to carry a load.
The junior from Detroit will be Tennessee’s workhorse in key games, running the ball inside and outside along with catching passes out of the backfield.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kelly is third in the SEC among returning tailbacks in “Elusive Rating,” a formula of missed tackles and yards after contact which measures a ball carrier’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers.
No returning SEC running back was as elusive in 2016. pic.twitter.com/6dI2VujDf3
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) July 3, 2017
Kelly averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season and did most all his damage in the final eight games after getting just 3 carries (for 18 yards) through the first five games of the 2016 season.
No. 2 OL Jashon Robertson
Robertson has taken over as the leader in the offensive line room, playing with more more violence than his soft-spoken personality might suggest.
Robertson took repetitions at center in spring drills, a move that gives new offensive line coach Walt Wells more possibilities as Tennessee crafts a starting lineup.
Tennessee’s O-line was largely soft and out of shape entering fall drills a year ago, but the group looked good this spring, benefitting as much as any position group from the addition of NFL strength coach Rock Gullickson.
Robertson has been the poster child for that improvement, having shed his jelly rolls and tightened up his 300-pound frame.
Step, hat placement, hands, pad level, feet drive, finish.
Excited to see Jashon Robertson this fall, center or guard. pic.twitter.com/gsb9BzmOaE
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) June 20, 2017
No. 3 WR Jauan Jennings
Jennings’ upside is irresistible, particularly now that he seems to have figured out how to stop being his own worst enemy and eliminated off-field issues.
At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Jennings has sprinter speed, and as Georgia fans can attest, a tremendous vertical jump.
There’s more: NFL teams have noted Jennings is one of the most physical and effective perimeter blockers in the SEC.
Jennings is Tennessee’s best returning receiver and will draw the coverage to prove it. But if he stays on top of his game, he still can dominate key moments like he did in 2016.
No. 4 KR Evan Berry
Somehow, this record-breaking kick return man didn’t make first-team preseason All-SEC.
This, even though Berry led the country with a 38.3-yard average as a sophomore and would have ranked tied for second in the nation (32.86) last season had he enough attempts to qualify in the official rankings.
Berry, with 4 career kickoff returns for touchdowns, is coming off a season-ending knee injury but is expected to be ready for the Sept. 4 opener in his hometown of Atlanta vs. Georgia Tech.
No. 5 OL Trey Smith
Let the hype begin, or, should we say, continue.
Smith, the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruit in 2017 according to ESPN.com, will be one of Tennessee’s five starting offensive linemen this season, most likely at guard until the calls and scheme are second nature to him.
It’s created quite a paradox for Jones, who on one hand can’t say enough good things about Smith, but on the other, has told his staff not to push him too hard to expect too much.
The Smith pick here is based purely on his physical potential with a nod to the ability of Wells to develop him quickly.