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What To Watch For In Tennessee's Opener Vs Virginia

It is finally that time of year again. It is football time in Tennessee. The 2023 version of the Volunteers will look a little different than it did a year ago. For starters, the Vols have recruited at a very high level, not just with recruits but in the transfer portal as well. Because Tennessee recruited at such a high level, the Vols have plenty of options at key positions. Depth is the most used word when talking about the Vols defense in 2023.

The Vols struggled defensively at times a year ago, but with all the guys that have been brought in, they have a ton of options to go with, which they were not fortunate enough to say last season. I believe that Tennessee hit big on some guys who were in the transfer portal, and they should all be very impactful.

LB Keenan Pili

The first player to keep an eye on in the opener on Saturday is linebacker Keenan Pili. The BYU transfer has been impressive throughout fall camp and shined in both scrimmages. Coaches seem to love Pili because he is a veteran player who does all the little things correctly.

Coach Brian Jean-Mary mentioned that Pili has adjusted quickly to the Tennessee defense and has been leading by example in practice. Pili is the perfect fit for this Tennessee defense and will be a name people know very soon. Playing alongside Aaron Beasley, this Tennessee linebacker group is bound for a big season.

WR Dont'e Thornton

Another transfer to keep an eye on would be Dont'e Thornton. I am interested to see how Josh Heupel uses Thornton in the offense, and how he will fit in with the explosive passing game. Dont'e Thornton and Squirrel White will both be playing in the slot position, and I am eager to see how Coach Heupel plays both guys throughout the game.

Either way, Thornton will make a huge impact on this team, and I think he will fit in perfectly. This Tennessee wide receiver room is loaded with talent, and they will be tough to stop in 2023.

LB Airon Carter

Tennessee recruited heavily on the defensive side of the ball to try to improve their defense after last season. One guy that people are excited to see is true freshman linebacker Airon Carter. He is another guy that the coaches have been raving about during fall camp. Carter has impressed a lot of people since arriving on Rocky Top, and I would not be surprised if he were fighting for a starting position this season.

Carter will not start in the opener but expect the freshman to play a ton. I am intrigued to see how much the coaches play Carter on Saturday. Either way, the Vols linebacker room is stacked, and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff plays everybody.

RB Room

Tennessee has a big problem when it comes to their running back room, but it is not a bad problem. The Vols are loaded at running back, and I have no idea how the coaching staff is going to play everybody. Every one of the three-headed monster at running back from a year ago has returned, and the Vols have added some more talent at the position. Jabari Small and Jalen Wright will both get the majority of the touches this season, but Dylan Sampson is uber-talented and flashed at times in 2022, is also returning and looking to have a bigger role. On top of those three, true freshman Cameron Seldon has impressed in fall camp, and I wonder how the coaches will play the talented freshman. Having too much talent in a position group is always a great problem to have, and having an endless supply at running back is a dream scenario.

I am so eager to see how the Vols will mix guys up, and how the coaches utilize players in different situations. Expect the Vols to play a plethora of different guys, especially if the game gets out of hand, and expect to see a lot of new faces all over the field. I think this game is a great way to open the season for Tennessee and a great way to get some guys some playing time, all while you get to play another Power 5 opponent in Virginia.

Tennessee will take on Virginia this Saturday in Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN at noon ET on ABC.


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