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Tennessee Volunteers Spring Breakdown on Offense

Nico Iamaleava
© Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

The start of spring practice on Monday brings the beginning of year four for Josh Heupel as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Dating back to his time as head coach at UCF, Heupel’s offenses have always been potent. The last two seasons saw Tennessee rank at or near the top of the FBS in many statistical categories. Turnover has hit the Volunteers depth chart in 2024 as a number of familiar faces on the offensive side of the ball are gone.

Veterans such as quarterback Joe Milton, III, wide receiver Remel Keyton, running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small and offensive linemen Gerald Mincey and Ollie Lane are either preparing for the NFL or with other universities. While Coach Heupel has a number of starters returning, the Volunteers will be a very different team in 2024 than they were in 2023, especially on offense. Below is a breakdown of each position and what the Vols need to have answered coming out of spring practice.




The Nico Iamaleava era begins in Knoxville as the former five-star quarterback enters 2024 as the starter. Nico was the Citrus Bowl MVP after accounting for four touchdowns against a staunch Iowa defense. Barring injury or a complete collapse Nico will be the starter for as long as he wears Tennessee orange. But what if the unthinkable happens and Nico goes down with an injury? Who will take over the reins? True freshman Jake Merklinger arrived early at Tennessee and participated in practices for the Citrus Bowl. As of now, Merklinger is QB2 and Heupel likes what he sees so far from the freshman. “Continuing to get better fundamentally.” Heupel said when addressing the media on Monday. “He has grown in understanding our schemes. He hasn’t mastered anything yet, and he shouldn’t at this point either. I am really excited to get out there and continue to compete with him throughout the course of spring ball.” The race for QB3 will be between redshirt seniors Gaston Moore and Navy Shuler and redshirt freshman Ryan Damron. The only question for the quarterback position is can Nico Iamaleava stay healthy for the entire season?


Running Backs


Dylan Sampson
© Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

Redshirt sophomore Dylan Sampson will receive the lion’s share of carries as Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small have both moved on to the NFL Draft. In 2023, Sampson was second on the team in rushing yards with 604 and scored seven rushing touchdowns, tied with quarterback Joe Milton, III for the team lead. Josh Heupel’s offense is a run-heavy scheme that will lead to opportunities for some young players to get more playing time. Sophomore Cam Seldon finished fifth on the team with 106 rushing yards and is penciled in as RB2. Young backs like sophomore Khalifa Keith, true freshman Peyton Lewis and redshirt freshman DeSean Bishop will get a chance to earn more snaps in the spring. Sampson and Seldon will be RB1 and RB2 going into the spring. The question with the running backs is can Sampson handle the pressure and physicality of being RB1 in an offense that runs as often as Tennessee’s does?


Wide Receivers


Losing a solid contributor in Ramel Keyton will hurt the passing game but the pieces Heupel currently has in place, as well as what he brought in through the transfer portal, will more than make up for the loss. The three starters should be redshirt senior Bru McCoy, junior Squirrel White and redshirt sophomore Chas Nimrod. McCoy and Nimrod are big bodies while White is a speedster. Pushing for time will be senior Chris Brazzell, II who transferred in from Tulane as well as five-star true freshman Mike Matthews. Senior Dont’e Thornton, Jr. is another big body who missed time in 2023 due to injury, similar to McCoy. McCoy came to Tennessee from Oregon as a versatile receiver, able to play either the outside position or in the slot. If he can stay healthy in 2024 expect Thornton to push for more playing time. The tight end position sees the loss of longtime Volunteer Jacob Warren and transfer McCallen Castles. Notre Dame transfer Holden Staes should push for the starting job with competition coming from redshirt freshman Ethan Davis and Alabama transfer Miles Kitselman. The question for the receivers is can they make enough plays to take the pressure off both Iamaleava and the potent rushing attack?


Offensive Line


Cooper Mays
© Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Arguably the most experienced group on the team, Tennessee returns five seniors who each started multiple games in 2023 for the Volunteers. One of the biggest victories for Josh Heupel in the offseason was convincing center Cooper Mays to return. Mays is the anchor for the Volunteers offensive front and his experience and leadership will help make Iamaleava’s transition as a starter much simpler. John Campbell, Jr., Andrej Karic, Javontez Spraggins and Dayne Davis all are penciled in as the starters with Mays. Keep an eye on LSU transfer tackle Lance Heard to push for playing time. The sophomore was the highest-rated tackle in the transfer portal. Heupel spoke highly of Heard on Monday but also cautions that Heard is still a young player with much to learn. “He’s in the beginning stages.” Heupel said. “He’s uber-talented and been great in the building. I expect him to grow a bunch here over the next 14 practices.”


Tennessee Volunteers Offensive Outlook


Josh Heupel’s offense is built on speed and the run game. Being able to process a lot of information quickly is a vital component in the success of the offense. The Volunteers lost a lot of production and experience from the 2023 squad. However, the team heading into spring practices has the potential to sustain the high-scoring, high-output offense that Heupel has built in Knoxville. The majority of the success of the offense lies on the shoulders of a 19-year-old redshirt freshman who looked very good against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Can Nico Iamaleava carry over that success from the bowl season to the spring?


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