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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Jordan McPherson

Tennessee had nation’s top offense in 2022. Orange Bowl is chance to show if it’s sustainable.

Jabari Smith gave a simple assessment for why the Tennessee Volunteers’ offense has been so lethal all season.

“This offense,” the junior running back said, “is set up for people to thrive.”

And thrive they have.

The Volunteers have led the country this season in total offense (358.1 yards per game) and scoring offense (47.3 points per game). They scored at least 34 points in every game this season except for their loss to No. 1 Georgia. This included putting up 40 on LSU and 52 on Alabama in back-to-back weeks to help establish themselves as a top-10 team in the country en route to a 10-2 record and a berth in the Orange Bowl.

No. 6 Tennessee’s season finale on Friday, a matchup with No. 7 Clemson (11-2) at Hard Rock Stadium, will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts to show the Volunteers’ offensive production can be more than just a one-season blip.

Clemson’s defense, which ranks among the top 25 nationally in yards allowed per game (25th, 331.3) and points allowed per game (tied for 19th, 20.1) was already going to pose a challenge to Tennessee.

It will even more so considering the Volunteers will be without two key players on offense in one-time Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Hendon Hooker, who tore the ACL in his left knee in Tennessee’s second-to-last regular season game, and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who declared for the NFL Draft.

While Hooker and Hyatt are big losses, Tennessee is focusing on who they have available instead of who is missing.

“Regardless of who it is,” Smith said, “it’s just about the moment and if you seize the opportunity.”

Milton’s moment

No one has a bigger chance to seize the moment than quarterback Joe Milton III, who has had an adventurous first two seasons at Tennessee after transferring in from Michigan after the 2020 season.

Milton, who grew up in Pahokee (about 90 minutes from Hard Rock Stadium), began the 2021 season as the Volunteers’ starting quarterback but sustained an injury two games into the season. Hooker took over quarterback after that and never gave up the job.

And Hooker was virtually as dominant as a quarterback could have been this season before his ACL tear, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions while also running for 430 yards and five touchdowns this season.

The reins are now handed over to Milton once again, giving Tennessee a chance to get a better gauge on their likely 2023 starter.

“He’s been extremely intentional in his preparation,” Tennessee quarterback coach Joey Halzle said. “It hasn’t been too big for him. He hasn’t changed who he is, but in the same breath, he understands his new role of having to lead this team.”

It’s the role he expected to have all along when he transferred to Tennessee. Instead, an injury derailed those plans and relegated him to backup duties for the better part of the past two years.

Milton, however, took the new role in stride.

“It was fulfilling because I learned a lot,” said Milton, who during the course of his college career has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,289 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. “I learned from Hendon’s game. I learned from my game. I learned what I need to do better and how I can implement some of [Hendon’s] stuff in my game. Just taking piece by piece and adding them to my game and cherishing all the moments.”

His next big moment will be Friday as he looks to cement his role as the Volunteers’ quarterback for 2023.

As for how the game plan will be impacted by the quarterback change...

“Nothing has changed,” Milton said. “Tennessee is still going to be Tennessee. The offense is going to operate how we operate. We’re going to play fast.”

Who steps up at receiver?

Replacing Hyatt’s production is not going to be done by one person.

Hyatt was named the first Biletnikoff Award winner in Tennessee history and a unanimous first-team All-American after catching 67 passes for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns. Five of those touchdowns came in Tennessee’s thrilling, last-second, 52-49 win over Alabama. The Volunteers are also without senior Cedric Tillman, who also declared for the NFL Draft.

Redshirt junior Bru McCoy, who announced he will return next season, will be Tennessee’s top receiving option Friday. He totaled 619 yards and three touchdowns on 48 catches this season. Senior Ramel Keyton (27 catches, 486 yards, four touchdowns) and freshman Squirrel White (21 catches, 373 yards) will also have increased roles on Friday.

“I have to step up,” Keyton said. “I have to help the team make some plays, but for the most part, it’s all collective. I have to do my part and I can’t try to do too much. I just have to control what I can control. When everybody does that, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Ground game continuity

One area of stability for Tennessee will be in the run game.

They will have both of their top running backs in Smith and sophomore Jaylen Wright, roommates who combined for 1,482 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

“Our chemistry has grown all year,” Smith said, “regardless of the situation.”

They’ll share the backfield again on Friday, when Tennessee looks to cap a resurgent season as a top-10 team for the first time since 2001.

“We’re gonna finish what we started,” Smith said.

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