We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“Who are the leaders on the team with Dobbs and others gone?” – @BigOrangeButch
Nathanael: On offense, I think it will be have to be whichever QB wins the battle. But I think John Kelly and Ethan Wolf are underappreciated for their leadership too. On defense, I think Todd Kelly Jr. and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are the leaders.
Will: I’ve said this since the beginning of last season: John Kelly is the most liked player in the Tennessee locker room. He is a vocal leader, but he does all the right things on the practice field to lead by example as well. Jauan Jennings was also very vocal on the practice field during spring practice. Defensively, Kirkland and Kelly are vocal guys. I expect Kahlil McKenzie to step into a leadership role this season as well. It’s going to be a big year for McKenzie, a guy who has tons of talent. He’s a vocal, outspoken guy who can be a big asset to Brady Hoke.
“Why are decent fans called ‘sheep’ for simply wanting the coach to turn it around and do well?” – @NeylandMafia
Nathanael: Because you can’t be in the middle ground any longer. I wrote an article about this not too long ago as it pertains to Butch Jones, but it applies to just about everything in sports (and in life, sadly). The middle ground is a rapidly disappearing portion of society nowadays, and people on the extremes will throw those in the middle ground into one of the two extreme camps even if that’s not where they fit.
In this case, anyone who wants Jones to succeed is labeled a “sheep” because they aren’t bashing Jones or wanting someone else. To me, it’s perfectly fine to want Jones to succeed, because that means the Vols will succeed and it means less turnover and strife for the program. I understand that thinking just like I understand people who are sold off Jones and want someone else as well. But labeling people as “sheep” or “negaVols” is the easy way out, and so many take that direction.
Will: The same people claimed Rick Barnes was “already retired” and wouldn’t get the job done at UT.
It’s really unfortunate. 8-4 is not a failure. You can be disappointed about last year’s results without throwing out the whole playbook. Was last season disappointing? Absolutely. But the body of work is a drastic improvement. And just because there are more question marks going into 2017 doesn’t mean Tennessee is destined for failure. Vols fans are so used to disappointment that they jump ship at the first sign of sinking. There’s still plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Butch Jones can right the ship from a season that ended in disappointment last year.
“Is it more likely the d-line stays healthy and is solid, or it underperforms and many freshman have to be relied upon?” – Tyler
Nathanael: Honestly, given the track record, it’s probably more likely they are injured and underperform. Is that what I think will happen? Not necessarily, no. But you asked what I think is more likely, and that’s what I think is more likely. Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips, and Darrell Taylor have all had injury issues. It wouldn’t surprise me if one or more of them did again in 2017. And given the fact that the Vols are woefully thin at defensive end (at least with proven talent), they can hardly afford injuries to Phillips or Taylor.
Will: The key is Brady Hoke. He really impressed me during spring practice, and I think he continues to say all the right things when he as the chance to talk to us. I think that Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips will be a deadly trio at defensive end. Honestly, I think the defensive line becomes the strength of the defense by week four.
“Best and worst takes y’all have had about UT (can be before starting at RTI)” – @yaboydoc
Nathanael: I always have a hard time remembering my good or bad takes because I often forget predictions I make unless I write them down. I’m fairly certain, however, that I picked the Vols to win the East in 2015. Not a truly horrible take since they finished 2nd that year, but still not great. I, like many people, was high on Dontavious Blair when he came in back in 2014, but so many people were wrong about that that I don’t feel nearly as bad about it. I don’t remember having a “best” take to be honest, other than me being excited when the Cubs got Epstein and Maddon and thinking that could be the right combo to win a World Series. That happened, but I didn’t outright predict it or anything.
Will: My worst take was definitely picking Dave Serrano and Tennessee baseball to make the NCAA Tournament this season. I thought the BaseVols would figure things out and finally get back to winning ways. I labored over a 1,000 word column detailing the reasons why Tennessee would turn it around. Then Serrano had one of his worst seasons in Knoxville and lost his job before the season was even over. Granted, many national writers agreed with me. But still. Ouch.
Best take? I saw John Kelly as a future star at the start of last fall. Everyone close to the program has always told me how good he really is. And I don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon. Kelly has a different kind of mentality. He’s mentally and physically tougher than basically everyone who’s trying to tackle him. The players love him. The fans love him. He’s ready to reach another level this year.
“What position battle are you looking forward to most this fall aside from the quarterback battle?” – Jack
Nathanael: I want to see who emerges as the second and third options in the wide receiver group. I think that unit has a ton of talent, but they’re not being talked about because of the lack of experience. Tyler Byrd could be very solid this season, and I like the upside of Marquez Callaway and Latrell Williams too. I want to see who emerges as a play-maker aside from Jennings.
Will: I’m excited to see who gets the majority of the snaps in the secondary, specifically at corner. Because that group needs drastic improvement. Once again, how does a first year position coach fare? Shaq Wiggins should lock down one spot, and Todd Kelly Jr. will be a go-to guy on the back end, but everything else is up for grabs. Should be an exciting carousel of players getting playing time over the first two games.