It’s finally game week. We’ll be wrapping up our coverage of Tennessee’s opener at this point next week, but there’s still a lot of work for the Vols to do before Utah State comes to Neyland Stadium.
The team got some rest and recovery in over the weekend after a grueling fall camp. Saturday was somewhat of a simulated gameday experience, with players learning the ins and outs of what next Sunday will be like – working on details such as knowing where to stand on the sideline, substitution patterns and other general gameday procedures.
Sunday and Monday were rest days and Tuesday will be heavy on teaching and installation as the Vols finalize their plan for the Aggies. Wednesday and Thursday will be the heavier hitting practice days and they’ll wrap up most of the work Friday with a lighter practice to make sure everything is as the coaches want.
A veteran of the MAC and Big East, Butch Jones is no stranger to adjusting the game-week schedule a bit. In fact, this will be the 18th time that Jones has been a head coach for a regular-season games not played on a Saturday. If you were wondering, he’s 11-6 in those prior 17 contests.
“Everything is about prior experiences and you learn from prior experiences,” Jones said of playing on odd days of the week. “I think we played on just about every day of the week but Sunday. Everything in the world of football is based on a Saturday-to-Saturday structure and then you try to get into a routine with school starting now.”
We’ll dive into final depth chart thoughts and other preview content this coming week on RTI, but the two biggest surprises heading into the opener have been the emergence of Jashon Robertson as the starting right guard and walk-on Michael Williams at the cornerback spot opposite of Cam Sutton. Barring a massive last-minute push from somebody else, we expect both to start against USU.
They likely won’t get the start on Sunday, but keep an eye on safety Todd Kelly Jr. and linebacker Chris Weatherd. Both seemed to turn a corner later in camp and we expect to see a lot of those two as the season continues.
Offensively, it’s easy to note the concerns about the offensive line and quarterback, but coordinator Mike Bajakian obviously likes some of the offensive skill players and what they can bring to his offense.
“Significantly better,” Bajakian said of how he feels about the weapons on offense compared to last year. “Guys have developed quite a bit more – the guys that were new to the scene last year – those guys are a year into the program and much further along. Even the guys that joined us in January have a lot of reps and a lot of skills under their belt. It provides more weapons for me as a player caller and obviously for the quarterback as he manages the offense. “
Special teams might be one of the least settled areas heading into game week. Matt Darr has the punting duties locked down. George Bullock appears to be the kickoff guy. But beyond that, a lot of battles are still open. Coaches have called the placekicking race “neck and neck,” though Bullock might hold an ever-so-slight edge there. Aaron Medley could easily close the gap this week, however. The return game is still getting settled.
Based on what we’ve seen, Devrin Young, Vic Wharton, Pig Howard, Emmanuel Moseley, Josh Malone, Cam Sutton and Jacob Carter are getting a lot of the work at punt returner. Young, Wharton, Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Evan Berry are among some of the most likely kick returners. The sure-handed Young is certainly a strong option at both spots and the likely favorite at punt returner especially. But that’s an area we may have to wait until Sunday to see who trots out there first.
Injury updates will be somewhat of a guessing game this year with Butch Jones’ more closed stance on disclosing information. The Vols do appear to be fairly healthy overall heading into game week, however. Based on what we saw late last week, Curt Maggitt is on track to play. It’ll be interesting to see if they limit his reps any, which is a luxury they might have with the emergence of Derek Barnett. Derrell Scott, Vic Wharton, Johnathon Johnson and Trevarris Saulsberry are the four we’ll be keeping a close eye on this week. Saulsberry, who hasn’t practiced since injuring his knee during the open practice, seems to be the most likely to miss game time at this point. Johnson’s status is clearly in question as well after being seen in a boot at practice for much of last week.
Last week, the Vol basketball team added a massive piece in the form of 6-10, 290 pound forward Dominic Woodson. A transfer from Memphis, Woodson should be able to get a “run-off waiver” from the NCAA and be eligible to play this year – something Tennessee is optimistic will happen. The Vols still won’t have post depth with Woodson in the mix, but at least they’ll have a true power forward.
Woodson is really skilled for his size. His back to the basket game is a work in progress, but he has excellent touch for a big man and will immediately be a scoring threat in the paint. He needs to drop about 20 pounds to be able to run the floor in Tennessee’s uptempo offense – his fresh start as a Vol should help in that area.
Off-the-court, we were on hand for Hoops for Hope on Saturday morning. Something Tyndall told us at the event really stood out.
“Everywhere I’ve been we’ve grown attendance, not just in a small way, we’ve dramatically increased attendance,” Tyndall said. “We have great attendance here at Tennessee but I really believe in giving back to the community and sharing our blessings and good fortune. In doing so, the community usually rallies behind you. I look at our attendance, which was over 15,000 last year, which is unbelievable, but on the flip side I want it to be over 20,000 every night this year.The more that we give to the community, the more that the fans and the community will give back to our team.”
Moving forward, the Vols will host their top targets this weekend for an elite camp. Among other activities, players will attend Tennessee’s Sunday night game with Utah State. Keep an eye on JUCO point guard Dequon Miller who will be in attendance. The Vols lead for his services and he could be close to pulling the trigger on a commitment.
Recruiting is starting to pick back up as the season approaches and the Vols look to be set up for a very exciting month on the trail. A handful of highly rated players will be making their decisions over the next month or so and right now the Vols are in very good shape with quite a few of them.
The Vols already got one as they picked up big commitment on Saturday with the addition of offensive lineman Venzell Boulware. In talking to some people around the program it was clear that Venzell was very eager to join the Vols after his visit here last weekend. Apparently, the open practice made a huge impression on Boulware and the opportunity to join former teammates Elliott and Evan Berry was simply too much to pass up. Boulware’s stock is currently on the rise and there is no question that other schools will try to get involved over the next few months, but don’t expect him to do much looking around – this is one kid that is extremely excited to be a Vol.
Many people have asked this week about what impact Boulware’s commitment would have on Memphis offensive lineman and Tennessee Vol target Drew Richmond. Richmond projects as an offensive tackle all the way and even though the staff has Boulware pegged as a player that could play tackle if needed, they feel he is best suited to play guard at the next level, so his commitment won’t have any impact Richmond whatsoever.
It sounds like Ole Miss made a strong push for Richmond last weekend during his visit to Oxford and appeared to have some momentum early last week. However, now that the newness of the visit has worn off it appears that Tennessee may have weathered the Rebel storm.
Richmond is set to announce his decision on September 9th and as it stands right now, the Vols look to be out in front for him. Ole Miss has historically recruited very well in Memphis, however, so expect he Rebels to fight to the bitter end for the 5-star tackle.
A player that has been brought up often in the State of the Vols has been Alpharetta, Georgia linebacker Quarte Sapp. There’s been a lot of chatter around Sapp committing to the Vols since the early portion of the summer and that chatter has ramped up even more this week as he appears extremely close to making a decision. I know we have said it before, but Sapp is definitely a player worth keeping an eye on this week as a commitment from him looks to be on the horizon. The staff is looking for at least one more linebacker to compliment Cecil Cherry and Austin Smith and it appears that Sapp is the odds-on favorite to be that guy.
Another player who looks extremely close to making a decision is Brentwood receiver Van Jefferson as he is scheduled to make his announcement today at his high school. Tennessee has been trending in recent weeks for the Ravenwood standout but it appears that they are in quite a battle with Ohio State and Georgia for Jefferson. Much like the situation at linebacker, the coaches are looking for one more receiver to go with Preston Williams and the polished Jefferson is their top target.
There was some talk on Sunday that Jefferson was telling friends that he would be playing football in the SEC next season. That would certainly rule out Ohio State as a potential destination for Van and put the focus on Tennessee and Georgia. Given Tennessee’s recent momentum and Georgia’s somewhat late entry into the Jefferson recruitment, this would certainly appear to be very good news for Tennessee if true. However, Georgia was carrying some momentum on Sunday night as this one appears to be going down to the wire.
I’m going to call the Jefferson race ‘too close to call’ at this point.
Expect the Vols to host a solid group of visitors this weekend for the Utah State game. One notable name expected to visit ia 2016 standout Joejuan Williams from Father Ryan in Nashville. A top-150 prospect nationally, Williams will be a huge target in the 2016 cycle for the Vols. We will have a comprehensive list of recruits and commits who will be in attendance as it gets finalized later in the week.
Take a deep breath…Football is within reach.