Facing the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide means Tennessee Football will see the SEC’s best. Here is a ranking of the top 10 players the Vols will have to face this year.
10. Ainias Smith – RB – Texas A&M
An all-purpose offensive player, if the Texas A&M Aggies turn things around this year, it’ll be because Ainias Smith got healthy. Smith suffered a season-ending injury four games in last year, and this is his first fully healthy year since 2020, when he had over 800 yards from scrimmage. In 2021 he had a punt return touchdown too, so watch out.
9. Ty’Ron Hopper – LB – Missouri
One of the bright spots of last year’s Missouri Tigers teams was linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper. If he played for a bigger name, he would easily have been first-team All-SEC. Hopper had 13.5 tackles for a loss last year, four pass deflections and 77 total tackles, 59 of which were solo.
8. Princely Umanmielen – DL – Florida
Another player who should have been preseason first team All-SEC, Princely Umanmielen had four and a half sacks and nine and a half tackles for a loss last year to go along with two forced fumbles. He plays on the edge but can move to the middle if needed. Add in his 39 total tackles, 16 of which were solo, and he’s a playmaker.
7. J.C. Latham – OL – Alabama
Welcome to this year’s Darnell Wright. J.C. Latham is starting at right tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide, and he’s the biggest reason they figure to have a dominant rushing attack this year behind Jase McClellan. If they stay committed to ball control, it won’t matter what issues they have at quarterback with Latham blocking.
6. Devin Leary – QB – Kentucky
Probably the only good quarterback Tennessee Football will face this year is a transfer from the N.C. State Wolfpack. Mark Stoops is running mostly a defensive-oriented team once again, but Liam Coen is back as offensive coordinator, and Leary threw for over 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns with just five picks in 2021. He got hurt last year.
5. Antwane Wells Jr. – WR – South Carolina
All the talk may surround Spencer Rattler and what he did to the Vols last year, Antwane Wells Jr. was actually the key to the South Carolina Gamecocks’ turnaround last year. Wells had 177 yards against the Vols and over 130 against the Clemson Tigers. He returns as Rattler’s go-to receiver, so he’s actually the key to the offense.
4. James Dumas-Johnson – LB – Georgia
A returning All-American linebacker, James Dumas-Johnson had nine tackles for a loss, four sacks, three pass deflections and a forced fumble last year to go along with 70 tackles, 45 of which were solo. He figures to be the primary linebacker in the Georgia Bulldogs’ defense this year, so his dominance will likely take another step.
3. Kool-Aid McKinstry – DB – Alabama
If Tennessee Football is going to continue its offensive dominance against elite teams, its new receivers have to get past elite cornerbacks. Kool-Aid McKinstry broke up 15 passes last year and is one of the best in the nation in coverage, so he will be a major test for Joe Milton III and whichever UT receiver he guards.
2. Brock Bowers – TE – Georgia
Hybrid tight ends are a new thing, but Brock Bowers does it better than anybody. He’s the best offensive weapon in the SEC. Bowers had 63 catches for 942 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and he added nine carries for 109 yards and three touchdowns. Guarding him will be brutal for the Vols.
1. Kamari Lassiter – DB – Georgia
Last year, the biggest reason Tennessee Football couldn’t beat Georgia was due to the inability of the Vols receivers to beat their cornerbacks one-on-one. Kamari Lassiter is the star of those cornerbacks, and that puts him atop this list. Malachi Starks and Javon Bullard are weapons at safety, but to beat UGA, Josh Heupel has to figure out Lassiter.