Tennessee’s football team has fallen short of preseason expectations.
That’s true both in record and overall performance.
The Vols have a 3-1 record, falling in the only game (at Florida) they realistically had a chance to lose.
The team has also looked worse than expected, mostly on offense.
Tennessee scored only 16 points at Florida and struggled to hit 30 points against FCS opponent Austin Peay.
The Vols still have time to turn things around. That needs to start Saturday against South Carolina.
Which individual players need to step it up after a disappointing start to the season?
Let’s take a look.
WR Dont’e Thornton
Thornton entered the season with a ton of hype after transferring from Oregon.
“He has freaky talent,” offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said at the start of fall camp.
Athletically, that’s true.
Thornton has size (6-5, 214) and speed that would excite any coach.
But Thornton hasn’t delivered enough on the field.
He had a bad drop against Austin Peay and failed to go up to catch a deep pass from Joe Milton III against Florida.
Thornton has shown a glimpse of what he can do.
He followed his mistake against Florida by catching a deep pass up the seam for 43 yards.
Thornton’s talent is real. His performance needs to improve.
WR Joe Milton III
Let’s start with a qualifier: all of Milton’s problems are not his fault.
See the inclusion of Thornton above.
Milton has needed help from his pass-catchers and offensive line, which he hasn’t received at times.
But Milton has made his own mistakes.
Milton has the strongest arm in college football but the lowest yards per attempt average in the SEC.
He missed a wide open Squirrel White during Tennessee’s two-point conversion attempt at Florida.
It’s difficult to watch that play and figure out what Milton saw before his decision to run out of bounds.
He had a great start to the game against UTSA but followed that up with a stretch of eight consecutive incompletions.
Milton’s first deep pass to White at Florida and the 81-yard run to start the UTSA game reminded us of his immense talent.
The running part of his game needs to continue for him to maximize his role in the offense.
But can it after he was tackled awkwardly in the first half against UTSA?
Milton’s inconsistency has played a part in the offense’s slow start to the season.
If he can fix some of his errors (and his teammates do the same), the offense should take a step toward the dominant play we saw a year ago.
OL John Campbell Jr.
Campbell is another transfer who created buzz during fall camp.
The excitement extended into the season opener when he drove a Virginia defender through the end zone, an effort that would earn the approval of any offensive line coach.
Tennessee needed that type of play from Campbell at Florida.
It wasn’t there.
Tennessee’s offense needs to improve for the Vols to find success in SEC play.
Milton needs more time to hit deep shots down the field.
That will require Campbell to play better the rest of the way.
He’s capable of it. He just needs to make it happen.
LB Elijah Herring
Tennessee’s depth at linebacker became a top storyline during fall camp.
It was quickly tested when starter Keenan Pili went down with an injury in the season opener.
Herring stepped into Pili’s starting role and has looked like a player with a lot to learn.
That’s not all Herring’s fault.
He’s a sophomore who does have a lot to learn.
But Tennessee doesn’t have time for mistakes to be made on the field.
Herring plays with max effort and has worked to improve.
Against UTSA, it looked like his effort was turning into better play on the field.
That needs to continue against SEC competition.
Herring is playing alongside an All-SEC linebacker candidate in Aaron Beasley.
The sooner Herring can catch up to Beasley in his understanding of the position, the better Tennessee’s season will end up.
CB Kamal Hadden
What were the expectations for Hadden entering the season?
Among fans, probably low.
But Tennessee’s staff has continued to believe in Hadden because of his physical talent and experience.
The start of the season has not been great.
Hadden committed two pass interference penalties against Austin Peay (before intercepting a pass later in the game).
His failed tackle attempt, if you want to call it that, at Florida caused most of the outrage for fans.
It wasn’t just the performance; the lack of effort was unacceptable.
Hadden returned to his starting position the following week against UTSA and will continue to play an important role until further notice.
Hadden has to be better.
But he’s also shown the ability to make plays.
Heads up play from Hadden would go a long way for Tennessee’s defense.
RB Dylan Sampson
Slap a big asterisk on this one.
Sampson has played lights out when given the opportunity.
The problem is he didn’t receive an opportunity in the one game that mattered: Florida.
The coaching staff failed to play Sampson in the Swamp, despite the Vols’ offense needing a spark.
Talk about disappointment.
When given a chance, Sampson has shined. He scored four touchdowns against Virginia and added two more against UTSA.
Sampson was a standout during spring, which created excitement for what he could do this fall.
The excitement is still there.
His opportunity to make a difference on the field should come Saturday against South Carolina.