Insider Mailing: The Season is Almost Here Edition

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    Photo by Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

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    We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.

    “Is it possible that West Virginia and their “high powered offense” is very overrated? They only scored 14 on Utah and Texas.” – Jeremy 

    Nathanael: Well, those two games came after Will Grier was hurt and was no long playing quarterback for them, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into those two games. West Virginia’s passing attack is absolutely no joke. Now, their running game is a little more questionable. But overall this offense will be a high-powered one, and it will test the Vols’ defense in a hurry.

    Ben: I don’t believe the West Virginia offense is overrated at all. If anything, people are putting too much stock into a revamped Mountaineers’ defense. Like Nathanael said, those 14 points against Utah and Texas came without Will Grier. West Virginia’s offense is top-five in the country when Grier is healthy. The wide receiver room might be the best in the country. They have two solid backs, and their offensive line is solid.

    “Will Greg Emerson be redshirted this year? Haven’t heard him mentioned much as far as newcomers that could make an impact this year.” – Zachary

    Nathanael: There’s a shot he redshirts, yes. I don’t think that’s because he’s not a good player, because I definitely think he is. I just don’t think he’s gong to crack the two-deep at defensive tackle this year because of the experienced linemen in front of him. I don’t expect him to go back to offensive line like he was in the spring because he hasn’t been there this fall really. I think he’s a guy you look at as a contributor more in 2019 but definitely in 2020 as long as he remains healthy.

    Ben: I don’t think Greg Emerson will redshirt this season because I don’t believe Tennessee has the depth along the defensive line to afford to redshirt him. Emerson has been working with the second-team nose and five-technique at certain points this fall camp. Even if he doesn’t crack the two-deep, Emerson will be called on at some point due to an injury or two. Very rarely do SEC teams make it through an SEC schedule without having to reach into their three-deep.

    “Do we have the personnel to run the 3-4 at this point?” – Randy

    Nathanael: They do, but how effectively will that 3-4 defense be run is the real question. I also wonder how often they’ll be in a base 3-4 package this season in the first place. I think just like UT’s offense, the defense will be very multiple this year. I look for them to play more 4-3 fronts and bigger defensive line fronts against teams like UGA and Bama and more nickel packages like 3-3-5 or 3-2-6 packages against teams like West Virginia and Missouri. It’s not a completely ideal fit with UT’s roster right now, but I think they can handle it.

    Ben: I think Tennessee has the personnel necessary to run a 3-4 at linebacker, but I’m not as confident the Vols do along the defensive line at this point. At outside linebacker, you have Darrell Taylor and Johnathan Kongbo, two capable pass-rushers on the edge. Inside, you have Daniel Bituli and Q’uarte Sapp, the heart of the defense. Up front isn’t as clear. Shy Tuttle is an excellent football player when healthy, but is he a true nose tackle or five-technique? The same can be asked about Emmit Gooden, Alexis Johnson and Kyle Phillips.

    “What is up with Tyler Byrd? With all the ability he showed early on, surprised he isn’t poised to make an impact in his third year.” – Jeff

    Nathanael: That’s a very good question. He’s looked fairly good in fall camp so far, but I don’t really know what the issue is and why he’s not higher up on the depth chart right now. I’d say he’s definitely behind Callaway, Jennings, Johnson, and Murphy right now. He may even be behind Latrell Williams and Josh Palmer too, but he’s at least looked fairly consistent in what I’ve been able to see at practice. We’ll see how much he plays this season, though.

    Ben: Tyler Byrd is a freak athlete, but the dream of him playing defensive back is just a dream. Which is why you’ve seen him on the offensive side of the football under Pruitt’s regime. At this point in camp, Byrd isn’t one of the four, maybe five, best receivers on the roster. Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, Josh Palmer, Brandon Johnson and possibly Cedric Tillman are all more reliable at this point. That’s not to knock Byrd; he has a lot of talent. But right now he’s not as fluid at receiver as others are in his group.

    “Will the lack of size and depth at linebacker be a contributing factor to large play capability of most the teams UT will face this year? And could Warrior move to LB since Todd Kelly Jr could anchor the secondary with Buchanan?” – Dustin

    Nathanael: I don’t think lack of size at linebacker is the issue. The lack of depth is a little more concerning, though, and you raise a good point. I think there’s even less depth at defensive line, and that concerns me more than the linebackers at this point. But of the two guys you mentioned in the secondary, I think TK Jr. would be the one who is much more likely to move down to linebacker than Warrior. I don’t think Warrior quite has the build to play linebacker, and we haven’t seen him do any of that at practice. I don’t think either one of them move to linebacker, though.

    Ben: I don’t think size will be a problem at linebacker. Sapp, Bituli, Kongbo and Taylor are all large human beings who should have nice years this season. Depth could become a concern if one or two of those four go down due to injury as there are question marks surrounding the two-and-three deep. I would be shocked if Nigel Warrior were to be moved to linebacker. He’s one of the best safeties in the SEC and the best defensive player on Tennessee’s roster. If anyone were to move to linebacker, I could see Todd Kelly Jr. making the move if injuries ravage the linebacker room.

    “The freshmen defensive backs are getting a lot of attention (Thompson, Flowers, Taylor), is this because they are really good or is it because Pruitt doesn’t trust the older defensive backs?” – @htcook1999

    Nathanael: I think it’s a combination of both. I think Pruitt likes what he has with Baylen Buchanan, but everyone else who returns there either isn’t a good fit or wasn’t rated high coming out of high school. At least at cornerback, anyway. Shamburger is at safety and star right now, so I don’t think he’ll be contributing much at outside corner this fall. But the new guys have really been impressive, and I think they’re better fits for this style of defense, which is another reason they’ve stood out more. They’re Pruitt guys, most of the other secondary players aren’t.

    Ben: It’s both. Bryce Thompson, Trevon Flowers and Alontae Taylor are all very talented and have the tools to have a very nice career at Tennessee. On the flip side, Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have a veteran they can rely on outside of Baylen Buchanan at corner. Marquill Osborne and Shawn Shamburger have had some positive moments, but they are struggling to be consistent.

    “Have your thoughts on Vols’ record changed since fall practice started?” – @tjvol49

    Nathanael: They haven’t too much, no. I’ve said all year I expected them to finish around 6-6 or 7-5, and that’s what I’m sticking with right now. I honestly think UT’s starting 22 will be a very good collection of players, but it’s their depth that concerns me and prevents me from being more optimistic than I already am. They’re just one injury away from being in a bad spot at a number of positions right now.

    Ben: My thoughts have changed drastically on the team overall, but not necessarily to the point of what I think their record will be. I still maintain that Tennessee will likely win six, maybe seven games. This team looks completely different this fall than it did in the spring. They’re much crisper, more competitive, and practice like an actual football team. My concern with this year’s football team is the offensive line and the depth. I believe Tennessee has some very talented players that can impact football games, but does it have the depth necessary to make it through an SEC schedule? At this point, I don’t think so.