For exactly one Saturday each spring, football returns to Knoxville. It’s time for the Orange and White Game — the annual spring football showcase before the team breaks for the summer months.
Josh Heupel will make his Tennessee debut in the game, giving us a little taste of what to expect this fall. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET time on Saturday, and you can stream the action on SEC Network+.
Here’s what to watch for.
Gone are the days of the traditional pro-style attack on Rocky Top. Josh Heupel is now in place, and so is his lightning-fast spread offense. Tennessee has spent the last month installing that new look, getting inherited players up to speed. Will we see the warp-speed attack on Saturday? Perhaps we see flashes, though Heupel has admitted that they’re not operating at full song just yet — understandably so.
Regardless, it’s going to be fascinating to see such a dramatic change. After years of horrendous offense, hopes are high that Tennessee can actually at least put a fun product on the field in the near future. We’ll get our first taste on Saturday afternoon.
Of course, all eyes will be fixated on the battle under center. Jarrett Guarantano has moved on, officially opening the door for a new era at quarterback. Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer return, while Hendon Hooker has entered the picture after transferring in from Virginia Tech.
By most accounts, Hooker has been the most steady of the bunch, while Maurer has provided some big flashes but still brings too much inconsistency to the table. Buzz around Bailey has been oddly quiet, but he has a chance to change that up this weekend.
Kaidon Salter has missed the entire spring due to suspension, missing out on key reps all month long. It’s disappointing that we won’t see him on Saturday, and he’s likely going to be put on the shelf until 2022, at least.
Michigan transfer Joe Milton will reportedly join this group after the spring, so Maurer, Bailey and Hooker will do all they can on Saturday to distance themselves from each other in the race. It’s extremely possible that the perceived third place finisher will move on from the program this summer with Milton’s pending arrival.
New faces at running back
No more Eric Gray. Gone is Ty Chandler. On paper, there’s virtually no experience in the Tennessee backfield. We know a little bit about Jabari Small, but that’s about it. Small has impressed everyone this spring, acting as the default top guy with JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans sidelined with an injury.
Speaking of Evans, we’ll see if he can go on Saturday. He was able to practice on Thursday, potentially clearing the way for him to compete during the spring game. Small and Evans were thought of as the top two guys coming into camp, but Dee Beckwith and Jaylen Wright have made plenty of noise. Both offer different styles, and it will be interesting to see how this staff utilizes both.
Emerging talent at receiver
The Volunteers are going to throw the ball more than we’re used to seeing, and they’ll also be breaking in a new top receiver. Who will that be? Tennessee has several options, but again, not much experience.
Velus Jones Jr. has returned and is line for a big role working out of the slot. Jalin Hyatt is a guy with obvious talent that will be utilized down the field, thanks to his speed. Beyond that, it’s fairly open. Cedric Tillman, Jimmy Calloway, Ramel Keyton — even Walker Merrill and Andison Coby have been in the mix this spring.
It’s a crowded room full of talent, and each guy will have a chance to stand out in a game setting this weekend.
Young gets his own category here because he’s one of the best stories of the spring. The JUCO product was an afterthought on signing day, but he came in and immediately stood out on the edge for Tennessee — a big position of need. The pass rush has been an issue for a few years now, but the Volunteers might have something cooking with young.
Tyler Baron is another guy we’ll want to see something from here. Tennessee badly needs to develop an impact player or two on the defensive side after so many roster losses this season.
Thin linebacker numbers
Who will play linebacker for Tennessee on Saturday afternoon? That’s a good question — it’s been a question all spring. Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch remain in the portal. Jeremy Banks has been injured. Martavius French, Aaron Beasley and Aaron Willis have all been suspended.
That leaves Kwauze Garland, Solon Page, Morven Joseph and long-snapper Will Albright. Everyone expects Tennessee to add a veteran linebacker from the portal, and it’s easy to see why. As for Saturday, those four are going to have their hands full in the teeth of the Tennessee defense. It’s trial by fire, but at least some depth is being built for the fall.