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State of the Vols: TaxSlayer Bowl Edition

Butch Jones

 Football

While chaos ensued on social media with conflicting reports of Tennessee’s ultimate bowl destination swirling around, the Vols were in the middle of bowl practice No. 2 at the football facility, somewhat oblivious to that madness.

And though the NCAA itself at one point actually had confirmation on its website that the Vols would be heading to Memphis to face West Virginia, Tennessee ultimately landed in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa to the surprise of many.

One person that it wasn’t a complete surprise to was athletics director Dave Hart, who, though he kept as many options open as possible for the Vols, was well aware that the TaxSlayer Bowl, known as the Gator Bowl for the past 69 years, was eyeing Tennessee.

TaxSlayer Bowl president Rick Catlett and Hart have a long-standing friendship and they had been in communication about this possibility ever since it became apparent that the Vols had a good chance to be bowl eligible.

“Dave (Hart) and I are very good friends and we have been for a long time and we had been talking for several weeks now about the possibility of making this happen,” Catlett said during the bowl’s conference call on Saturday night. “Again, kudos to the new system and the way that Commissioner Slive and his staff handled the process and Dave, it was pretty seamless for me and you, we just waited around for them to tell us that we had what we wanted, right?”

It became official around 5:30 p.m. ET on Sunday evening and Butch Jones called his team, which practiced earlier that afternoon, back together for a meeting to tell them the news, telling the seniors, none of which have ever played in a bowl game, especially that they had been rewarded with this trip to the first January bowl game Tennessee has played in since the 2007 season.

“Obviously we were very, very excited,” Jones said.”…And it was just very, very fitting to tell them what a great opportunity they would have, and I think it’s very fitting for our seniors and everything they’ve been through in our football program to be playing in such a storied bowl game as this. Very, very appreciative for everyone. It was a great, great day for us.”

The Vols now have 13 bowl practices remaining to get ready for the 7-5 Hawkeyes, a team that stumbled down the stretch a bit, losing four of their last six, but also playing Wisconsin and Nebraska within one score in those two games. Some of those practice sessions will be held in Knoxville with the remaining ones coming in the Jacksonville area after the Vols depart for the bowl site after Christmas.

One note that’s always fun for the players is that up to 125 participants, or the entire squad basically, will be receiving bowl gifts. They can be valued at up to $550 and the TaxSlayer Bowl gives out a Fossil watch and an assortment of Panasonic gifts as well – something the team certainly will deserve and enjoy after missing out on perks like those the last few years.

Tennessee was back on the field for a partially-open practice on Saturday afternoon after five days off to focus on exams. But even though there was no official practice, quarterback Joshua Dobbs said he gathered the receivers up to get some throwing in over the break, noting that “there are no off days in football.”

Practice had a training-camp like feel at times as the Vols went through some physical, one-on-one drills and really got back to some basics with no opponent known at that time.

On the injury front, the running backs are getting healthier, but still look banged up. All three scholarship upperclassmen – Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young were in green, non-contact jerseys, but at least in Young’s case, it was good for the senior back on the field at all after he had missed several weeks with broken ribs. He’s expected to be available for the bowl game and for players like him, a couple extra days (Jan. 2) certainly won’t hurt.

Center Mack Crowder was back and looked like he was 100%. Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry should be good to go as well in the bowl and bumping that D-line rotation up to four players will certainly be helpful for the Vols. Curt Maggitt sat out most of Saturday’s practice, but Jones said he’s just a little “banged up” and being held out as a precautionary measure.

Still no formal update on A.J. Johnson or Michael Williams, but everybody we’ve spoken to doesn’t expect either to return for the bowl game. It’s still a fluid process, however, with the legal system examining all the evidence of the alleged rape and it’s tough to rule anything out at this point. Safe to say the Vols are preparing for life without both at this point, though.

 Basketball

If the Vols are distracted by any off-the-court issues, they certainly aren’t playing like it. Tennessee came out with a ton of energy against Kansas State on Saturday on the way to an eight-point halftime lead. The Vols led for the entire second half and were up 60-50 with a minute to play before a frantic K-State rally and some missed UT free throws made the home team sweat. Regardless, Tyndall’s young Vols held on for a one-point victory and moved to 3-3 on the season.

The Vols rotated much better on defense and, before the final minute, defended the three-point line very well. That bodes well headed into a home game with No. 23 Butler (Sunday, 2pm on ESPNU) and a road matchup with NC State (Dec 17th, 7pm on ESPN2).

Dominic Woodson didn’t practice last week and didn’t dress for the Kansas State game. Donnie Tyndall said after the game that Woodson had to take care of some academic issues and that more news on his status should be coming soon. It’s worth noting that Woodson maintained a greater than 3.0 GPA last fall at Memphis. We’ll keep you posted on his status for Saturday’s contest with Butler.

All has been quiet on the NCAA front since the resignations of assistants Adam Howard and R.J. Rush. Assistant coach Beau Braden has filled in well in Howard’s stead and the Vols’ grasp on Tyndall’s system is clearly improving. If Saturday’s performance against Kansas State is any indication, the Vols will be a tough out when SEC play starts.

Lost in the noise of the last few weeks? Robert Hubbs is playing better basketball. He scored 14 points in his last two games (and hit a three in each) after scoring just 12 points in the previous four games. The Vols don’t need Hubbs to lead them in scoring, but they could use 7-10 points a game from the sophomore guard.

 Recruiting 

Ok, really big week on the recruiting front, so bear with me as I try to get all of this straight.

First, here’s a look at the official visitors that were in town over the weekend. We got to see these guys at bowl practice on Saturday morning and, safe to say, they all looked like they were having a great time.

1. DT Shy Tuttle
Tuttle’s been on campus many times and this visit seemed to be nothing but a formality as the five-star defensive took a formal tour of his future home before enrolling at the end of this semester. Tuttle found his way to the middle of Tennessee’s ‘circle of life’ drill during Saturday’s practice and looked like he was ready to join the fray in street clothes (he did not, however, as that would be a violation). He and Andrew Butcher were all smiles during the practice and even set up chairs next to Steve Stripling’s group so they could keep a close eye on how he runs a practice with the defensive linemen.

Here’s a pic Tuttle tweeted of himself and Butch Jones during his visit.
https://twitter.com/KingTut_90/status/541018777690071041

2. QB Jauan Jennings
Jennings, a dual-threat quarterback, recently confirmed that he’ll be an early enrollee. The firm Tennessee commitment will go through all of spring camp as the Vols look for depth at quarterback. There is a chance that quarterback won’t be where Jennings ultimately ends up, but he will get a very long look at the position once he arrives to campus. He has made tremendous strides as a passer in the last year, and, if he can continue to develop his skills, has the perfect demeanor and competitive style of play you look for at quarterback.

3. DE Andrew Butcher 
A longtime commitment, Butcher will enroll early after a strong senior season at Alpharetta (Ga.) High School and join an extremely talented incoming group of defensive linemen. As we mentioned earlier, he and Tuttle were very tuned-in to the ongoings at Saturday’s practice and have already formed strong relationships with each other, the coaching staff and many current players.

Here’s a look at a tweet from Brian Butcher (Andrew’s father) featuring Andrew, Shy Tuttle and Stephen Griffin. (Tuttle is sporting a retro Reggie White jersey, for those wondering.)

4. OL Jack Jones
Among UT’s most solid commitments for a long period of time, Jones has been to Knoxville numerous times, and will no doubt help recruit others on his official visit before he enrolls at the end of this semester as well and looks to get in the mix on the offensive line. Jones also found his way to the middle of Tennessee’s ‘circle of life’ drill during Saturday’s practice and was seen cheering on his future offensive teammates as they competed and won one-on-one matchups.
Here’s Jones in the locker room with Jauan Jennings.

5. DB Stephen Griffin
The Vols were looking to solidify the rangy, 6-foot-3, safety who has been committed to Tennessee for quite some time, and this weekend looks like it may have sealed the deal. Griffin has a lot of upside and his ability to enroll early will be huge for his development. The Vols will be losing both Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil after next season, so bringing in players to add quality depth and potentially grow into a starter at either of the safety spots is very important to this class.

6. DE D’Andre Walker
The only non-committed, non early enrollee that was in town for an official, Walker has Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn in his final three. The speed rusher (6-2, 220) would be like icing on the cake for Tennessee’s impressive defensive line class, though the Vols still have some work to do here. Walker appeared to really enjoy his visit – as the picture below and his subsequent tweets would suggest – but time will tell if he and the Vols are the final match. The Vols are still waiting on Nashville’s Kyle Phillips to make his decision in the coming weeks; and while there is certainly a chance that Tennessee tries to sign both, look for the staff to really turn up the heat on Walker if they miss out on Phillips.

Here’s a look at Walker in the Smokey Gray uniform in the locker room during his visit.
https://twitter.com/LuxuryLife1K/status/541780092696158208

We mentioned Kyle Phillips above; Phillips will be in town this weekend for his final official visit before making his college decision and enrolling in December. As has been expected for quite some time, Phillips is down to LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee as his final three. There has long been the thought that distance from home would play a large roll in his final decision, and if that is the case then the Vols have to like where they stand heading into this weekend’s visit. If the Vols can do enough to impress Phillips then the odds of earning his commitment in the next few weeks look good. Phillips has played everything close to the vest though, so this one isn’t the slam dunk that some were hoping for.

One player that may have turned into a slam dunk that few were expecting was linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. out of Indianapolis. Tennessee sent the house to visit with Kirkland last week and the results appear to be favoring the Vols. Kirkland decommitted from Michigan a month ago and Tennessee quickly emerged as a leader for his services in the following weeks. He visited the Vols on the weekend of November 22nd and the fact that the coaching staff decided to use their in-home visit with him so early should tell you how they feel about where they stand.

Here’s a tweet that Kirkland sent out following his visit with Butch Jones, Tommy Thigpen and Steve Stripling.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 9.56.41 PM

The biggest and most unexpected news of the weekend, however, may have come from California signal caller Sheriron Jones. It was announced Saturday afternoon that Florida commitment Sheriron Jones had de-committed from the Gators and named Tennessee his new leader. Jones is a 6-3, 195-pound quarterback from Moreno Valley, California at Rancho Verde High School.

Jones unofficially visited Knoxville back in June before committing to Florida only days later. The coaching change at Florida was enough, not only to make Jones rethink his commitment, but to make him pull the plug altogether. Tennessee would certainly look to add Jones if possible considering their current lack of depth at the position, and the fact that Jauan Jennings may prove more productive at safety or wide receiver down the road. It will be interesting to see how the coaches handle the situation so as not to ruffle any feathers, but, ultimately, if their job is to bring in the best talent possible, then there is no way they pass on Jones if given the chance to add him to the 2015 class.

Here’s a look at some highlights of Jones – and while I’ll stop short of calling him a Josh Dobbs clone, there is certainly a lot of similarities between Jones and the current Vol quarterback.

Finally, a few Vol commits took part in state championship games over the weekend and our own Daniel Lewis compiled some stats and observations from their performances. If you haven’t given it a look yet, be sure to do so by clicking here.

Also, check back with us throughout the week as we set the stage for Tennessee’s huge recruiting weekend coming up. The Vols will be hosting a swarm of talented prospects, and we should have an updated list of they expect in later this week.

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