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Is Tennessee’s 2024 returning production an issue for the Vols?

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ESPN analyst Bill Connelly said recently that Tennessee’s returning production for the 2024 season ranks 94th out of 134 FBS teams.

I say: So what?

I don’t care as much about UT’s returning production for the 2024 season.

I care more about the production of the returners from Tennessee’s 35-0 victory over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl.

I care more about what Tennessee secured in the transfer portal and in the 2024 recruiting class.

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That says more about projecting what Tennessee might do this season than production lost from last year’s 9-4 season.

According to Connelly, the Vols return just 46% of their 2023 production on offense, which ranks 107th nationally, and 58% of their production on defense, which is 66th nationally.

While that might seem alarming, UT returns more production in Connelly’s rankings than six of the 11 FBS opponents they’ll face in 2024 – Kent State (100th), Kentucky (102nd), Arkansas (109th), UTEP (112th), Alabama (115th) and Mississippi State (122nd). Only Florida (32nd), Georgia (47th) and Oklahoma (67th) are in the top 70.

Let’s take a closer look at what UT returns on offense.

Tennessee lost quarterback Joe Milton and his 2,813 passing yards, his 20 touchdown passes, his seven touchdown runs and his 64.7% completion rate.

But does anyone think Milton was more productive in 2023 than Nico Iamaleava will be in 2024?

Iamaleava showed flashes of brilliance against Iowa’s top-five ranked defense.

Iamaleava accounted for four touchdowns (three rushing) in the one-sided win. He is clearly a more natural fit for Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense than Milton, who is more of a pro-style quarterback.

Iamaleava is a better runner, better passer on the run and quicker decision-maker than Milton. And I’m convinced he’ll be a better quarterback.

The Vols averaged a nation’s-best 46.1 points per game in 2022 but that dipped to 31.7 last year. Look for that number to threaten 40 points per game under Iamaleava’s leadership.

At running back, the Vols lost 1,000-yard rusher Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, who had over 2,000 career rushing yards – and 475 last year.

The Vols return Dylan Sampson, who accounted for eight touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He also ran for 133 yards against Iowa’s stout run defense.

Sampson has been a weak-link in pass protection, but he’s an explosive back who could eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark if he gets 200 carries.

Cam Seldon had 55 yards on 13 carries against Iowa. He’s a big back with speed who will be a solid complement to Sampson.

Freshman Peyton Lewis and returner Khalifa Keith could make a three-man rotation, but the running back position won’t be as formidable. I can’t imagine Sampson-Seldon-whoever being better than Wright-Small-Sampson.

Tennessee also won’t be as good at tight end, having lost Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles (38 combined catches for 474 yards and nine touchdowns).

Ethan Davis is a talented tight end, but unproven. Holden Staes of Notre Dame was ranked the No. 1 tight end in the transfer portal, but he had just 16 catches for 187 yards and four scores.

Tennessee lost veteran wide receiver Ramel Keyton, who caught 35 passes for 642 yards and six touchdowns. But he also had several drops on long would-be touchdowns.

The Vols return Bru McCoy, who suffered a season-ending injury in Game 5. He caught 52 passes in 2022 and could match that this season.

Squirrel White is the leading returning receiver with 67 catches for 803 yards. He didn’t gain many yards after catch, but that could change as Milton rarely hit White in stride. Iamaleava’s accuracy could lead to White having a higher yards-per-catch ratio than 12.0.

The Vols added Tulane transfer Chris Brazzel (44 catches last year) and five-star Mike Matthews. One or both could make the rotation.

Chas Nimrod (17 catches) and Kaleb Webb (14) also return.       

The offensive line returns three starters, led by All-SEC-caliber center Cooper Mays, talented left tackle John Campbell and guard Javontez Spraggins, who suffered a torn MCL late last year.

UT added a former five-star offensive tackle in Lance Heard of LSU.

The other guard spot is up for grabs.

The returning offensive production is better judged by the Citrus Bowl. All 151 passing yards return. All 232 rushing yards return. Of 151 receiving yards, 73 return. Of the 383 total yards, 310 returns.

That’s more reason to be optimistic that the offense will be better in 2024 – despite the percentage of production lost.

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