3 Tennessee Volunteers who will be better in 2024, and 2 who won’t

A list of players who will make or break Tennessee's 2024 football season

Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Tennessee
Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Tennessee / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

As spring practices are underway and the 2024 college football season edges closer, the spotlight intensifies on the Tennessee Volunteers, a team with a storied legacy and a passionate fan base eager for success.

The 2023 CFB season was disappointing for the Vols, who finished with an 8-4 record and were ranked 25th in the final AP poll. Those rankings do not sound all that bad, but to put things into perspective, the belief surrounding this team going into the year was that they could finish in the Top 4 and make the College Football Playoff. 

Amidst the drama and underperformances, there were some flashes of players showing potential greatness. There is plenty of reason to believe that the Vols will be better in 2024. This team has the personnel to reach the CFP and even potentially play for the national championship. 

In this article, I will highlight three players who I believe will be better in 2024 and help lead the Vols to a better, more fulfilling season. I will also mention two players who I believe will not be better; not to say that they will be not good or will be worse, but just that they, contrary to popular belief, will not vastly improve and have an extraordinarily large impact on this team.  

5. QB Nico Iamaleava will be better as he breaks out in 2024

Nico Iamaleava, a name that resonates with promise and potential within the Tennessee Volunteers football program, seems to possess unlimited potential. Emerging from Long Beach, California, Nico's journey to Knoxville is marked by high expectations stemming from his standout high school career, which showcased not only his physical talents but also his mental acuity and leadership qualities.

As a quarterback, Iamaleava possesses a rare blend of size, arm strength, and mobility, which allows him to execute plays from the pocket with precision and extend plays with his legs when necessary. His high school highlights reel is a testament to his ability to make all the throws, demonstrating deep-ball accuracy and the touch required for shorter, high-percentage passes. Beyond his physical gifts, Nico is known for his football IQ, quickly reading defenses and making smart decisions under pressure, a trait that distinguishes great quarterbacks.

As each game goes by in 2024, Nico will gain invaluable experience. The transition from high school to college football is significant, with faster gameplay and more complex defensive schemes. In 2023, Iamaleava served as the backup quarterback, seeing a very limited amount of playtime (he did, however, start in the Citrus Bowl game and lead Tennessee to a 35-0 win over Iowa). 

By being given the starting role in 2024, Iamaleava will have had time to adjust to the college level, benefiting from the coaching staff's guidance and an off-season dedicated to refining his skills. As the coaching staff continues to recruit and develop talent around him, Iamaleava will benefit from an improved offensive line, a diverse set of skilled receivers, and a stronger running game.

4. RB Dylan Sampson will thrive in a bigger role for Tennessee

Dylan Sampson, a dynamic running back for the Tennessee Volunteers, has quickly become a notable figure in college football with his remarkable agility, speed, and work ethic. Coming out of Dutchtown High School in Geismar, Louisiana, Sampson was highly touted for his explosive playmaking ability, consistently demonstrating the capacity to turn a routine play into a highlight-reel touchdown. 

His recruitment to Tennessee was seen as a significant win for the program, promising to bring a new level of offensive threat to the Volunteers' backfield. During his two seasons playing with Tennessee, Sampson has accumulated 1200 scrimmage yards and scored 14 touchdowns (13 of which have been scored on the ground). 

In his time with Tennessee, Sampson has honed his skills under the guidance of an elite offensive coaching staff. Now, with the Vols’ RB1 Jaylen Wright leaving the team to pursue professional football, Sampson is poised for a bigger role and to have an even larger impact on this team, scoring points. 

Sampson is known for his relentless dedication to improving every aspect of his game—be it strength, speed, or vision on the field. The offseason has seen Sampson commit to an intensive training regimen, focusing on increasing his durability to handle a larger workload and refining his receiving skills to become a dual-threat out of the backfield. Moreover, the Volunteers' post-Jalyen Wright offensive scheme is expected to play to Sampson's strengths more effectively.

With a focus on creating space and utilizing speed, Sampson is set to be the focal point of Tennessee's attack, given more opportunities to exploit defenses in open space where he is most dangerous.

3. EDGE Caleb Herring will be a cornerstone for the Vols

Caleb Herring has rapidly ascended as one of the most promising talents in college football. Emerging from a highly competitive Riverdale high school program, Herring received 17 offers to play football from elite schools such as Georgia, Miami, and USC. Still, Herring decided to stay and play locally at the University of Tennessee.

At the core of Herring's potential is a unique blend of speed, power, and technical skill that allows him to dominate the line of scrimmage. His explosive first step off the edge, coupled with an arsenal of pass-rushing moves, has made him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Herring's ability to read plays and react with lightning-quick decisions showcases his football IQ, making him not just a physical but also a strategic threat. He also has a knack for making big plays in critical moments, whether it be a sack, a forced fumble, or a crucial tackle for loss.

In this senior year of high school, Herring was named the 6A Region 4 Defensive MVP his senior season after racking up 79 tackles and 18 tackles for loss. As a true freshman for the Vols in 2023, Herring appeared in parts of six games and recorded three tackles (one solo), one sack, and one forced fumble. 

As the 2024 season approaches, several factors point towards an even more impactful year for Herring. His playtime is expected to increase vastly, and the coaching staff's tactical adjustments are expected to leverage Herring's strengths even more, positioning him as a central figure in the Volunteers' defensive schemes.

2. WR Dont'e Thornton Jr. won't see much change in his small role

Dont'e Thornton Jr. was a consensus four-star recruit and top 100 player coming out of high school before committing to play for Oregon. He was touted for his exceptional athleticism, keen football IQ, and his dynamic playmaking ability. During his freshman year, he played in all 14 games and tallied up 175 total receiving yards while also scoring two touchdowns. 

Since then, it seemed as though Thornton was set to break out and emerge as an elite college player. He was given plenty of opportunity to do so the following season and yet only improved slightly: he recorded 372 yards from scrimmage and caught one touchdown pass. After his sophomore year, he transferred to Tennessee and posed a similar stat line. He tallied up 224 total yards and once again scored one touchdown. 

It seems that going into every college football season, there is a belief that Thornton Jr will finally break out and put his full high school skill set on display; however, time is running out, and injury problems are becoming more and more of a threat to his playtime. For example, Thornton only played nine games last year and was ruled out for the season after injuring his lower body in late November against Missouri.

Entering his senior year, Thornton Jr’s role on the Vols is established. He will be a fourth or fifth wideout option and receive limited playing time. The area in which he will have the most impact will be through the experience and wisdom he will be able to employ on the younger players. 

1. LB Elijah Herring won't be bad, but won't level up with the Vols

Rated as a consensus three-star recruit out of Riverdale High School, Elijah Herring was widely regarded as a top-50 linebacker in the nation. In his senior year, he Racked up 67 tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss, five sacks, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. 

These elite numbers quickly helped Herring earn a spot in the Vols' linebacker rotation. As a true freshman, he appeared in all 13 games (most of his time was spent on special teams, albeit). In his sophomore year, Herring started 11 of the last 12 games of the season and led all of the Vols defense with 80 total tackles. He also recorded four tackles for loss and half a sack. 

In his role(s) with the Volunteers, Herring's versatility has shone; he adeptly handles various defensive tasks, from disrupting the quarterback to maintaining coverage, demonstrating the kind of flexibility crucial in contemporary football. His commitment to not caring about padding the stat sheet and always doing what’s best for his team is also evident to anyone who watches Tennessee football. 

With all of this being said, Elijah Herring is in store for another good season. He is a great football player and fills his role on this team extremely well. The only reason I put him in the category of players who will not be better is because it seems as though he has pretty much reached his ceiling, and everyone already knows his identity as a football player. He will be a starter on this team for the next year or two and will continue to be a leader; however, his skills and stats will not drastically change. Expect the Volunteers to focus more on building their defensive schemes for the future around younger players such as Elijah's last-name twin, Caleb. 

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