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    (Photo via @JahmaiM on Twitter)

    Tennessee’s men’s basketball program has been much more selective with who they’ve offered in the 2021 recruiting cycle. The Vols can be a little more picky after having a lot of success on the court in recent years and even more success on the recruiting trail.

    Last week, head coach Rick Barnes sent out an offer to an elite four-star guard in the 2021 class, Jahmai Mashack. The 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard plays for Etiwanda in Rancho Cucamongo, California and has recently received more interest after bouncing back from an injury and posting a stellar junior season. Teams like Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisville, and Texas have all come calling for Mashack over the last three months.

    But getting a call from Tennessee was something special for the four-star guard.

    “Coach Barnes was the coach who called and offered. Obviously, to get a call from a legendary coach like him was big time,” Mashack said in a recent interview with RTI. “He personally talked about how much they would like for me to be a part of their family. Coach (Michael) Schwartz (Tennessee’s associate head coach) was the coach I talked to on a regular basis. He’s checked on me and my family during the protests and with the pandemic. Basketball has always been secondary to what’s going on with me as a person. Coach (Kim) English has also reached out.”

    Mashack said he’s known about Rick Barnes for quite some time, and it was just a few years ago that Tennessee caught his eye as a basketball program. That was thanks, in large part, to the efforts of players like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone leading UT to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons and lifting the Vols to No. 1 in the country for a month.

    “I’ve known about Coach Barnes for awhile, but I started to learn about Tennessee two years ago,” Mashack explained. “I watched Schofield, Grant, and Bone a lot.

    “I know (Tennessee is) all about character and player development. They get into people defensively, which I love, and they run an equal opportunity offense. I also know they don’t offer a lot of players at all.”

    In Rick Barnes’ first few years as Tennessee’s head coach, the Vols couldn’t afford to be picky on the recruiting trail. When Barnes took over, he was the Vols’ third head coach in men’s basketball in three seasons, and his first two Vol squads went a combined 31-35 overall. Because of that, Tennessee offered 30 or more prospects in three of the four recruiting cycles between 2016-19.

    But once UT found some success on the court and Barnes’ ability to develop players began to shine, the Vols were able to be more selective.

    Tennessee offered just over two dozen recruits in the 2020 class, and they’ve been even more stingy with their offers in the 2021 cycle, giving out just over a dozen offers so far.

    That total is more akin to what programs like Duke (8), North Carolina (9), Villanova (11), and Kentucky (6) have offered in the 2021 class so far.

    Because of that, Mashack feels pretty special and like an actual priority for the Vols. He said that once recruits are allowed to visit campuses again, Tennessee will “definitely” be getting a visit from him.

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    At 6-foot-5, 190 pounds, Mashack fits the mold of a two-guard who can offer some versatility on offense and defense both. And that’s exactly what Tennessee is recruiting him as.

    “Tennessee is recruiting me as a big guard,” Mashack said. “So, I try to use my strength and size to my advantage. Scoring in transition, my midrange, and my pull-up jumper is what I’m most comfortable with right now.”

    Mashack will continue to work on his offense, but it’s his defense that has coaches vying for his commitment.

    The four-star guard is considered one of the top defenders in the 2021 class regardless of position. He’s capable of defending multiple positions, and his head coach at Etiwanda, Dave Kleckner, is a legend on the west coast and values defensive above all else.

    “I just take pride in every possession and look for tendencies in other players. I try to be a well-rounded defender, not just on-ball but off-ball and in transition,” Mashack said of his defense. “My dad always says you can never stop a great offensive player, but if I can make them earn every shot, then that’s what counts. I’m also versatile because of my length. So, I can guard multiple positions.”

    Mashack was the only non-senior starter for Etiwanda last season, and all four of the other starters earned Division I scholarships. Kleckner, Mashack’s head coach, has coached the likes of Darren Collison and other future NBA players, so he knows talent when he sees it.

    The talented junior earned that starting role despite suffering an injury last summer that derailed his recruitment.

    In the summer of 2019, Mashack fractured his foot and missed out on the AAU circuit. Because of that, he didn’t get to show off in front of coaches in summer camps, making him miss out on a valuable time frame for rising juniors.

    But once Mashack recovered from his injury, he proved why he was given a four-star rating.

    Known more for his defense, Mashack still totaled 20 or more points in over half a dozen games as a junior and had several games with multiple steals and blocks. He earned Cal-Hi Second Team All-State honors in the highest division of high school basketball in his junior season as well.

    For Mashack, getting healthy and picking up a lot of offers over the last handful of months isn’t something he’s taken for granted.

    “I’m so blessed. I don’t take it for granted that these coaches are taking the time to get to know me and watching my game film,” Mashack stated. “I stayed at one school, Etiwanda, and I stayed with my local AAU team, Prodigy. I had to kinda do things the local grassroots way because I didn’t want to just leave. So coaches know I’m a team-first guy. It’s definitely paid off.”

    Right now, Mashack is rated as the No. 66 overall prospect and No. 14 shooting guard in the 2021 cycle per 247Sports. Tennessee has been pursuing multiple five-stars in this cycle, but Mashack has certainly caught UT’s eye.

    Unfortunately for the rising senior, he won’t be able to participate in the AAU circuit again this summer. This time, however, it’s not because of an injury; the current COVID-19 pandemic has canceled the summer camps and summer leagues this year.

    In the meantime, Mashack is doing everything he can to stay in shape and prepare for the upcoming season, one that could be a big one for him.

    “Thank God I’ve been able to get in workouts at a private gym several times a week,” Mashack explained. “I also run in the mornings and do a lot of body weight workouts. I’m trying to stay ready for whenever things open up.”

      Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

      After an impressive freshman campaign a year ago, Tennessee sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is expected to take an even bigger jump in his second season in college.

      According to one analyst, To’o To’o is already among the upper echelon of SEC linebackers heading into his sophomore campaign for the 2020 season.

      SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic ranked To’o To’o as the fifth-best linebacker in the league heading into this upcoming season, finishing behind Alabama’s Dylan Moses, Missouri’s Nick Bolton, Auburn’s K.J. Britt, and Georgia’s Monty Rice.

      Before signing with the Vols, To’o To’o was rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 3 outside linebacker in the 2019 national signing class out of De La Salle High School in California. The dynamic linebacker chose Tennessee over Alabama, Washington, and many other offers.

      As a freshman in 2019, To’o To’o appeared in all 13 games for Tennessee while starting 12 of them. He made an early impact in the Vols’ season opener against Georgia State, leading the team in tackles with 7, becoming the first freshman to lead the team in tackles in a season opener since Dwayne Goodrich did it against UNLV in 1996.

      To’o To’o finished second on the team in tackles with 72 while adding five tackles for loss, a half-sack, a pair of pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery. His performance in his debut seasoned helped him earn Freshman All-American honors and Freshman All-SEC honors.

      Click the image above to order your Go Big Orange shirt now! Use promo code “RTI20” to save 20% off your ENTIRE order!

      To’o To’o is expected to be a key piece on a Tennessee defense that ESPN’s S&P+ projected as a top 10 defense in 2020 earlier this offseason.

      The young linebacker isn’t the only Vol player Cubelic is high on, however.

      Cubelic has previously listed Trey Smith as the top returning offensive guard in the SEC, Brandon Kennedy as one of the top returning centers, and Wanya Morris as one of the top returning offensive tackles.

      Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI

      This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little

      On June 3, 2020, Tennessee football legend Johnny Majors died at his home in Knoxville. As a tailback at the University of Tennessee, Majors earned the Southeastern Conference Most Valuable Player title twice (1955 and 1956) before earning All-American status in the latter season. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy, coming in second to Paul Hornung the same year.

      Majors, however, is perhaps best remembered as a coach. After winning a national championship with a perfect record as head coach at Pittsburgh, he returned to his alma mater as head coach in 1977. He led Tennessee teams to SEC titles in 1985, 1989, and 1990 and earned distinction as SEC Coach of the Year in 1985. His coaching tree remains one of the largest and most successful with former assistants like David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer, Jimmy Johnson, Jon Gruden, and Al Saunders. Thirty-three of his assistants went on to be head coaches at either college or professional levels.

      Take a look back at a summer memory of Majors’ teammates and more in “This Week in UT Sports History.”

      July 7, 1957

      The report from The Knoxville News-Sentinel said one member of the 1956 team had already left for professional play. Johnny Majors reported to Montreal for a short stint in the Canadian League, where he would play for the Alouettes only one season. (He then returned to UT as a graduate assistant and backfield coach). But while Majors adjusted to a new climate, former teammates sweated out the summer at home, sweet home.

      “Not even the July sun can stop King Football,” the News-Sentinel reported. “Conditioning exercises for the 1957 National Professional Football League season is already under way for a group of former Tennessee Vols who have returned to Shields-Watkins Stadium to prepare for the pro campaign.”

      Vols-turned-pros Jack Stroud (New York Giants), Darris McCord (Detroit Lions), Buddy Cruze (Chicago Bears), and Tennessee legend Doug Atkins (Chicago Bears) took to the bleachers to sweat off “excess poundage in daily workouts” in their old home stands.

      Stroud, a tackle, prepared for his fifth season with the champion Giants while Atkins, the “Humboldt giant,” prepped for another season at defensive end for the Bears. At the time, the News-Sentinel reported the 6-foot-8 Atkins weighed in at 270 pounds. His size and agility made him an intense defender, able to bat down passes with ease. Tennessee retired Atkins’ No. 91 jersey in 2005 along with Reggie White’s No. 92 and Peyton Manning’s No.16.

      Tennessee would retire Majors’ No. 45 in 2012, the most recent number to be honored. His head coaching record with the Vols stands at 116-62-8. When he missed the first three games of the 1992 season following heart bypass surgery, Phillip Fulmer took over, winning against ranked Georgia and Florida. By season’s end, the top position belonged to Fulmer. But that’s another story.

      July 10, 2007

      In 2003 and 2004, Tennessee pitching coach Fred Corral elevated the status of Vol hurlers among the ranks of the SEC elite. Consecutive sub-3.90 ERAs gave a boost to Tennessee. In 2003, the Vol pitching staff improved to 31st in the nation with a 3.88 ERA. The next season, they would stand at 13th nationally with an improvement to 3.51.

      Corral notably signed Luke Hochevar, an eventual No. 1 overall draft pick in the MLB.

      “Coach Corral is the ultimate pitching guy,” Hochevar said. “He takes pitching to the next level and pushes his guys to the best of their abilities. There is no one in the country as good as Chief. He hits every aspect of the game from mechanics to the mental approach and knows how to teach it better than anyone I have ever been around.”

      The Oklahoma Sooners took notice and offered Corral a job. He left Tennessee to join the institution that beat the Vols in their only College World Series Championship (1951). Major league teams selected eight of his OU pitchers in the MLB draft, and his coaching helped the Sooners reach the Super Regionals in 2006.

      Then, on July 10, 2007, Tennessee head coach Todd Raleigh announced Corral’s return to Rocky Top.

      “Coming back to the University of Tennessee is very rewarding, not only for me, by for my entire family as well,” Corral said. “I’m very thankful to Todd Raleigh and UT for giving me the opportunity to be a Vol again.”

      Raleigh said the addition to his staff brought a wealth of experience and a skill for development second to none.

      Corral would later spend five seasons with SEC East rival Georgia, coaching 12 pitchers to the MLB Draft, before making his way to Mizzou where he has coached since 2018.

      July 8, 2016

      A different kind of hurler made Tennessee Athletics headlines in 2016. Discus thrower Tavis Bailey earned his spot on Team USA for the Rio Olympics at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. He joined three other Vols on Team USA, four total for the Olympic Games. (Kali Davis-White competed for Team Jamaica).

      His 61.57-meter throw earned him the silver. He became the 20th male Tennessee track and field athlete to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. A transfer from Lenoir-Rhyne, Vol basketball head coach Rick Barnes’ alma mater, Bailey competed at Tennessee from 2012 to 2015.

      Bailey came in second in the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships to end his cap off his collegiate career. He had placed third in 2014. He would not make the top 12 at Rio.

      While the 2020 Olympics have been rescheduled for next year, the SEC has yet to announce dates for virtual SEC Media Days to discuss upcoming seasons much in question. The annual event had been scheduled for July 13-16, but COVID-19 will force the conference to take a virtual approach.

        (Photo via 4smael on Instagram)

        Tennessee has targeted a number of five-star prospects in the 2021 recruiting cycle, and UT holds commitments from two recruits who are or have been five-stars in this class. On Sunday, one of the Vols’ top remaining targets — who is also a five-star — included Tennessee among his top remaining schools.

        Smael Mondon, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the 2021 class per 247Sports, tweeted out a graphic on Sunday afternoon showcasing his top five teams. Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and LSU made the cut among his many suitors.

        According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Mondon is the No. 26 overall prospect, No. 2 outside linebacker, and No. 3 recruit in the state of Georgia. The regular 247Sports rankings list Mondon as the ninth overall prospect in the class and the top-rated outside linebacker and recruit in Georgia.

        The 6-foot-3, 200-pound defender plays for Paulding County in Dallas, Georgia and holds over three dozen scholarship offers. But Mondon will be focusing on those five schools moving forward.

        Mondon has visited Tennessee three times in the last year. He took an unofficial visit to Knoxville in late July of last year and came back to see the Vols take on Vanderbilt in the regular season finale. He also visited in late January of this year. Tennessee was the first SEC school to offer Mondon and the second school overall. Virginia Tech offered him first on October 9, 2018. The Vols extended an offer on November 7, 2018.

        At this time, Mondon has not specified when he will be announcing a commitment to a school.

        Watching Mondon’s film, he certainly looks to live up to that five-star billing. He’s a physical, violent defender with really good speed and exceptional length. He can move very well and has great pursuit. He shows off his versatility and overall athleticism by playing on both sides of the ball for Paulding County.

        As a junior this past season, Mondon ran the ball 57 times for 498 yards and six scores while catching 15 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown according to MaxPreps. His defensive stats from his junior season have not been updated on the site.

        Tennessee currently has 23 prospects committed to them in their 2021 class. The Vols’ class currently ranks No. 4 in the country and No. 1 in the SEC. The Vols already have a pair of highly-rated outside linebackers committed to them in their 2021 class in five-star Terrence Lewis and four-star Aaron Willis.

          One of Tennessee’s top targets in the 2021 recruiting class now knows when he’ll be committing.

          Amarius Mims, one of the top offensive tackles in the 2021 cycle, took to Twitter to announce that he will be committing to his college of choice in just over a month on August 15th.

          According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Mims is the No. 6 overall prospect, No. 2 offensive tackle, and No. 1 recruit in the state of Georgia. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound tackle plays for Bleckley County in Cochran, Georgia.

          Tennessee was one of the first SEC schools to extend an offer to Mims, giving him a scholarship offer on January 31, 2019. The Vols made Mims’ list of 10 finalists back on April 1st, joining Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oregon, Auburn, Florida, and Florida State.

          Both Alabama and Georgia seem to be the favorites in the race to land Mims’ commitment, but the Vols have been a consistent competitor for the top prospect in the state of Georgia. Tennessee offensive line coach Will Friend is Mims’ primary recruiter.

          When you turn on Mims’ film, it’s easy to see why he’s so highly-coveted. He’s an aggressive mauler with an imposing frame. He can move well and blows up defenders with ease. He’s especially dominant when run blocking, but he’s not a slouch as a pass blocker, either. Mims has long arms and elite size and length.

          Right now, Tennessee has 23 commitments in their 2021 class, a class that ranks fourth nationally and No. 1 in the SEC. But the Vols have a need for offensive linemen as they look to fill out the class, as UT only has one offensive lineman committed to them currently. Three-star North Carolina offensive tackle Colby Smith is the Vols’ lone OL commit.

            Over on ESPN, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program has snuck into the top 10 of Jeff Borzello’s way-too-early preseason top 25. But ESPN isn’t the only site that believes the Vols are a preseason top 10 team right now.

            247Sports recently updated their way-too-early top 25 in men’s hoops, and the Vols found themselves in a familiar spot this offseason: inside the top 10.

            According to 247Sports’ rankings, Tennessee is the No. 10 team in the country at this point in the offseason. Even with the Vols still waiting for rising senior Yves Pons to make his final decision about going pro or coming back to college, 247Sports believes Tennessee is the top team in the SEC and one of the top teams in all of college basketball for the upcoming 2020-21 season.

            “Yves Pons and John Fulkerson emerged as stars a year ago, and should Pons return, he’ll have plenty of help,” writes 247Sports. “Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are returning starters as well, and the fourth-ranked class in the 247Sports Composite yielded two five-star players in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. Add in rebounding machine E.J. Anosike, who transferred in from Sacred Heart and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey, a high-quality shooter who sat out last year, and the Volunteers have plenty of returning talent and overall experience.”

            247Sports projects Tennessee’s starting lineup to be Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, Josiah-Jordan James, Yves Pons, and John Fulkerson to begin the season.

            The Vols will be deep and talented next season. Jordan Bowden and Jalen Johnson are the only notable departures from the roster this past season as the Vols add the aforementioned EJ Anosike to a top-five recruiting class to a fairly experienced roster.

            As of right now, Yves Pons currently has his name in the draft pool for this year’s NBA Draft, but it’s assumed that Pons will ultimately pull his name from consideration before the deadline and return to Tennessee for his senior season. That assumption becomes less and less certain as time goes on, but Pons is still largely expected to come back to UT.

            Barnes’ best recruiting class while in Knoxville is led by Springer and Johnson, a pair of five-star guards. Tennessee also signed four-star forward Corey Walker Jr. out of Chatham, Virginia as part of the highly-touted recruiting class. Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. will also be eligible this season after having to sit out last season due to transfer rules.

            Tennessee is the highest-rated SEC team in 247Sports’ early rankings, beating out Kentucky (17th), Arkansas (19th), and LSU (21st). Gonzaga checks in at No. 1 overall, followed by Baylor, Virginia, Villanova, Iowa, Duke, Kansas, Creighton, and Wisconsin.

            Under Barnes, the Vols are 49-36 in regular season SEC games, going 37-17 in conference play over the last three seasons while going 74-29 overall in that span. Tennessee made the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic this past spring.

            While both ESPN’s and 247Sports’ preseason rankings aren’t indicative of how the preseason AP Poll will play out, should the Vols crack the top 10 of the preseason AP Poll, it would mark the second time in three seasons that Tennessee begins the year as a top 10 team. That would mark the first time since the 2007-08 season and the 2009-10 season that Tennessee’s men’s basketball program started in the top 10 of the preseason poll twice in a three-year span.