State of the Vols: Wildcats Edition

    by -

    Butch Jones-1-37

     Football

    After some time off over the weekend, the Vols were back on the practice field Sunday in shorts and shoulder pads for continued installation of the Kentucky game plan after opening as a 6.5-point favorite over the Wildcats. It wasn’t a completely typical day, however, as Lil Jon, who has been among Tennessee’s biggest celebrity fans this season, stopped by for a visit while in town for a concert.

    Expect Butch Jones and Tennessee’s creative team to capitalize on the visit as much as possible in both promotions and recruiting.

    There was plenty of work done over the bye week, but the biggest focus was on resting many of the overused players and trying to find some depth behind those players, particularly on defense, who are playing 70-plus snaps per game.

    So who might step up? Defensively, coordinator John Jancek said linebacker Jakob Johnson, linebacker Cortez McDowell, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix and defensive tackle Dimarya Mixon are among the names who are pushing for more time. He also mentioned safety Todd Kelly Jr. and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden as players looking to take the next step in a secondary that is under review after a couple tough outings

    Kelly’s fallen behind LaDarrell McNeil on the depth chart as McNeil remains ahead of the true freshman in overall consistency in practice and knowledge of the defensive calls. But Kelly’s instincts and raw athleticism are needed going forward. Expect the battle for reps at safety to be intense in the coming weeks.

    Gaulden is somewhat of a wild card for the defense as the Vols look to make every possible improvement headed into the stretch run. He can play any of the cornerback spots, including nickel, and has seen reps at safety as well. He got fairly extensive work at the nickel spot last week in practice and is in the conversation for playing time there with Justin Coleman struggling. Cam Sutton, obviously, has a corner spot locked down, but Emmanuel Moseley, Michael Williams, Justin Coleman and Gaulden are all possibilities at the other spots at this point.

    Finding depth at defensive tackle and linebacker are two of the biggest priorities. With Jordan Williams playing close to 80 snaps in the South Carolina game and A.J. Johnson taking every defensive rep plus playing on special teams, getting players such as Mixon and Jakob Johnson up to speed will be crucial.

    Offensively, the Vols are settling in on the offensive line that consists of (L to R) Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder and Jashon Robertson. Right tackle could be an interesting battle with gutsy redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam and true freshman Coleman Thomas, who is moving much better after his injury at Ole Miss, both in contention for snaps. Gilliam has been a pleasant surprise to nearly everybody in the program, though the coaches are still high on Thomas’s upside despite some struggles this season

    Running back depth continues to be a concern, though the news appears to be promising on Marlin Lane’s injury situation. After not being able to put weight on his leg following the SC game, Lane got work in at practice last week and has a good chance to play against Kentucky. Still, the coaches continue to work on Derrell Scott’s development to have the freshman as another option in the backfield. Devrin Young (ribs) seems to be a stretch to return this week at this point.

    We’ll be keeping an eye on Marquez North (shoulder) this week in practice. He wasn’t on the practice field for the open portions last week. The Vols are looking for depth here as well. Vic Wharton and Ryan Jenkins are among the lesser-used options that have seen some significant snaps over the past two weeks and both will continue to battle for playing time. Pig Howard is coming off arguably his best game as a Vol at South Carolina and coaches have gone to great lengths to use some of things he did well in that game as a teaching point to some of the younger WRs.

    Josh Smith underwent surgery on his injured ankle on Friday and will miss the rest of the season. Coaches hoped to get him back this year, but his sprain never showed substantial improvement and they’re hopeful that surgery will get that issue permanently cleaned up and he should have a chance to come into 2015 completely healthy as a redshirt sophomore.

    Going forward, obviously the focus is on winning at least two more games, but virtually everybody in the program has their eye on three. That starts with the Wildcats next weekend, who are coming off a massive defensive letdown in a 63-31 loss to Georgia at home that dropped them even lower in several defensive categories.

    If the Vols are able to find at least two more wins, it’s difficult to say where they’ll end up, but despite a 6-6 or 7-5 record, they would be a hot commodity among some of the lower-tier bowls with SEC ties. The Belk Bowl in Charlotte has had representatives at multiple UT games and the Liberty Bowl has shown immense interest as well.

    The Music City Bowl, the site of UT’s last bowl appearance, would very much be in play as well, with officials expecting a hard sellout if the Vols do end up in Nashville.

     Recruiting

    It was a very busy recruiting weekend for the Tennessee coaching staff as they departed late last week and spread throughout the country to visit with current commits and future recruits alike.

    Steve Stripling was in Concord, California on Friday to spend some time with Kahlil McKenzie and his coaching staff at Clayton Valley Charter School. McKenzie was ruled ineligible to play for Clayton Valley this season and was not playing in their game on Friday night, but he and Stripling were able to spend quite a bit of time together. Obviously, Tennessee is in no danger of losing Kahlil’s commitment, but it just demonstrates even further the effort that this staff puts forth on a consistent basis to make sure that all commits and recruits feel pursued and valued during the process.

    While Stripling flew across the country to see Kahlil, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen traveled to the mid-state area on Friday to check out Hillsboro High School’s game against Kenwood. Hillsboro features two Tennessee targets in commit Vincent Perry and his teammate Kyle Phillips. Phillips remains one of Tennessee’s top uncommitted targets regardless of position, but the talented defensive end is exactly what the coaches are looking for to wrap up their class along the defensive line. Phillips continues to listen to Tennessee and there is very real interest there, but schools like LSU and Ole Miss are each carrying some recent momentum.

    It wasn’t just the assistant coaches who hit the recruiting trail over the bye week, however. Butch Jones also did his part to continue his program’s recruiting success in the Volunteer State over the weekend. Jones started his Friday by stopping at Knoxville’s South Doyle High School to visit with Vol commit Joc Bruce and Cherokee head coach Clark Duncan. Duncan played defensive back for Tennessee from 1977-1980 and has developed a very good relationship with Jones over the last year and a half.

    Joc Bruce is a bit of an enigma for Tennessee as far as where he will ultimately play upon his arrival, but one thing is for sure…The Knoxville native is a football player and will have multiple options available to him once he gets here. It was originally thought that Bruce would come in as a running back, but some of his biggest plays this season have come from the defensive side of the ball, so there is now some growing chatter that he may indeed get an early look there.

    After his stop in South Knoxville, Jones made his way to Nashville and began a virtual tour de force in the mid-state area. He started at Brentwood Academy during the afternoon, where he probably spent countless hours thanking the coaching staff for having Derek Barnett mentally and physically prepared to make the impact he has to this point in the season after arriving in June. The mid-state area has been loaded with talent in recent years, but a lot of it has been heading to schools like LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Jones’ time at Brentwood Academy shows that he is serious about cultivating relationships with coaching staffs in hopes to keep that talent home – even when there are no committed players from Brentwood Academy in the 2015 class. He hopes that pays dividends very soon with 2016 commitment Ryan Johnson and huge target Bryce Mathews both hailing from BA.

    After the stop at Brentwood Academy, Jones made his way to two separate high school football games on Friday night; Blackman’s 49-14 win over Cane Ridge and Oakland’s 53-0 win over Mount Juliet.

    Blackman is where current Vol commit Jauan Jennings plays quarterback and the 4-star athlete turned in another strong night at the office, completing 6-of-15 passes for 84 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for an additional 31 yards – all in the first half before the game got out of hand and his coaches chose to rest him.

    Oakland High School actually features two current Vol commits in offensive lineman Jack Jones and tight end Kyle Oliver. Ironically, Oakland sits at 11-1 on the season with their only loss coming at the hands of Jauan Jennings and Blackman in the first game of the season by the final score of 28-21.

    There should be a lot of recruiting news and nuggets in the coming days as Tennessee prepares for their final two home games of the 2014 season against Kentucky and Missouri. Expect Tennessee to have a strong number of official and unofficial visitors for each game as they try to ride the momentum of the USC win as far as it will take them. That win turned a lot of heads across the country – not because South Carolina is some juggernaut, but because of all that Tennessee had to overcome to win that game. The emergence of Joshua Dobbs has also had a big impact on recruits from both sides of the ball as the Vols look to have found their quarterback of the future with the sophomore signal caller. Great players want to know they have the opportunity to win right away, and Tennessee now has a huge selling point with Josh Dobbs leading the offense.

    The Vols had a special visitor take in practice on Sunday as rapper Lil Jon made his way to Knoxville to speak to the team and take in a practice. For more on his visit, check out Daniel Lewis’ story from Sunday evening. Look for this story to make its way around recruiting circles in the coming weeks.

    And finally, it was another big week for Tennessee commits on the high school gridiron. Rocky Reid continues to run over the entire state of North Carolina in his quest for rushing records and Shy Tuttle – the 310-pound defensive tackle – got a couple snaps at running back and the results were very favorable. For more on how Reid, Tuttle and the rest of Tennessee’s committed players fared on Friday night, check out RTI’s Commitment Stats story from Saturday Morning.

     Basketball

     The Vols went 2-0 in exhibition play last week – that wasn’t a foregone conclusion with a team like Pikeville on the schedule. Laugh all you want, but the Bears would beat several of the teams on Tennessee’s regular season schedule this year. Tennessee struggled with nerves in Monday’s win but settled down to play better basketball in Saturday’s victory over Lenoir-Rhyne. It will take them a few months to get comfortable with Tyndall’s full-court press, but the Vols should start finding their stride near the start of SEC play.

    Tennessee tips off the season against VCU in Maryland on Friday at 6:37 pm ET (TV: CBS Sports Network). That will be a tough matchup for the Vols. Any team that can press will cause UT problems this year. Without a true point guard, UT struggled with turnovers against Pikeville’s press last Monday (the Vols had 18 turnovers) – VCU should cause even more. We’ll break down that matchup later in the week.

    The NCAA’s investigation into Southern Miss basketball for alleged violations committed under Donnie Tyndall has been the talk of the town since that news broke last Thursday. While timelines vary for each NCAA investigation, it’ll likely be months before we know any concrete details from the NCAA. With that in mind, here’s what we know about the allegations at this point.

    When Tyndall left to take the Tennessee job, one of his former players was not retained by Southern Miss. He wanted to come to Tennessee but when Tyndall wouldn’t take him, he went to the NCAA to lob allegations at Tyndall and Southern Miss. That obviously was enough to get the NCAA to Hattiesburg.

    Several coaches have expected the NCAA to look into Tyndall’s actions for months and Jason King, the author of the initial report on the NCAA’s investigation, had been working on the story since the summer. This is going to get worse before it gets better for Tyndall and Tennessee. How much trouble Tyndall is in will come down to the NCAA’s ability to prove the accusations against him. No one knows where the NCAA is in that process or if there are truly any violations to find at this point. It is clear, however, that these alleged violations occurred before he took the Tennessee job and that the investigation didn’t start until after he was hired by the Vols.

    We’ll keep you posted on this issue as we hear more.