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We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“If JJP gets into school in the next couple of weeks, will he be redshirted? And if not, how long before he’ll be ready to play?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: First of all, I appreciate you asking a question about J.J. Peterson that isn’t just “where is he” or “do you have an update on him.” Secondly, if he does get in to UT, I do expect he’ll be redshirted. He’s missed all of the summer conditioning and all of fall camp at this point, and he still has the defensive playbook to learn. You’re looking at him maybe appearing in one or two of UT’s cupcake non-conference games and maybe once or twice late in an SEC game, but that would probably be it. They can redshirt him after playing four games thanks to the new NCAA rule, so that’s nice at least.
Ben: If J.J. Peterson ends up at Tennessee, I do think he’ll redshirt. However, because of the new redshirt rule that allows players to play in up to four games while preserving their redshirt, I think you’ll see Peterson on the field later on in the season. The last four games of the season are against Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Three of the four are at home, which will allow Peterson a chance to get in there and make some plays. Plus, you never know when the injury bug will hit and when you’ll need him to fill in. Peterson may be able to provide a spark while also preserving his redshirt.
“How much of injuries, past coaching staff do you blame on Kyle Phillips’ disappointing 3 years at Tennessee?” – Tre
Nathanael: That’s a fair question actually. I do think you can attribute a lot of his failure to live up to the hype to him being a bad fit in the previous defense and not being coached up well last year as well as injuries and changing positions in his first couple years. But how much of that is really to blame? I think Phillips has had plenty he could blame, but I also think he himself is to blame a little bit. I think this year could be a lot better for him, though.
Ben: Part of it does fall on Kyle Phillips for being fairly unproductive to this point, but I believe a large part of that is due to injuries and the lack of coaching Tennessee possessed. One of Phillips’ problems was that he could never settle into a particular position along the line. Phillips wanted to play defensive end, but Butch Jones’ staff was adamant about playing him at defensive tackle. Now that Phillips is healthy, stepped up as a leader and settled into being an end in Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 defense, the Tennessee native should have a productive senior season.
“How does Jeremy Pruitt define a successful 2018 season and how does that compare, if at all, to what Tennessee fans define a successful 2018?” – Patrick
Nathanael: Honestly I don’t think Pruitt considers any season that isn’t a 15-0 championship season a success. That man hates losing with a passion and only wants to win games. I think he would accept a bowl bid and at least looking competitive against the tougher teams on UT’s schedule this year, but I don’t know if he’d define that as “successful.” I do think making a bowl game would be successful to most Vol fans for this year. Not getting blown out significantly in any game would be a success too.
Ben: I agree with Nathanael, anything less than a national championship to end a 15-0 season will be a disappointment in Pruitt’s mind. Anything less than a championship will always be a disappointment to this staff. Now, with that said, I do believe Pruitt understands the job he has taken on. Aside from winning a championship, Pruitt’s reasonable expectations are probably seven, eight or nine wins. During the spring, Pruitt mentioned that his team has a standard they’re playing towards, not the scoreboard. If the Vols can play relatively well this season and make a bowl game, I think Pruitt will consider it a success. And I think Tennessee fans will be content with making a bowl game in year-one under Pruitt.
“Outside of Cox, what kind of, if any, attrition should we expect in this class?” – Kenny
Nathanael: That’s a tough one, and usually I say not to worry about attrition in a recruiting class because the number generally take care of themselves. But names to keep an eye on for one reason or another are LeDarrius Cox (as you already mentioned), Anthony Harris, and Roman Harrison. Even UT’s most recent commitment, Melvin McBride, will be worth watching down the stretch.
Ben: Personally, I don’t like discussing who may be processed out in a recruiting class. I believe that’s unfair to the kid. There will be kids that are asked to look elsewhere, and I think that’s because Tennessee has landed some commitments they didn’t expect to. If the Vols land Wright, Kris Bogle, Jayden Hill or Quavarius Crouch, which they’re in great shape for, you’ll definitely see some attrition.
“With Brian Maurer outdoing so many other QBs at camp why is he not rated higher?” – Mike
Nathanael: The only reason I could come up with is because the scouts want to see what he does as a senior. His junior year numbers in high school weren’t super impressive, but he improved greatly over the offseason. He was inconsistent at times during summer camps at The Opening, but when he was on he was one of the best. I still think it’s weird that most of the other QBs from The Opening did see their rankings rise or drop after their performance there, but Maurer didn’t really rise all that much. He did a couple dozen spots, but that’s much less than what he should’ve risen. If he has a solid senior season this year, he’ll get that fourth star I think.
Ben: I believe a big part of it is his touchdown-to-interception ratio. As a sophomore in 2016, Maurer threw 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In 2017, he threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Stats aren’t the end all be all, but those aren’t the numbers of a highly-ranked quarterback. While Maurer has struggled a bit going through progressions, the Florida native possesses a huge arm. While at The Opening, many raved about his arm as he connected with fellow commit Ramel Keyton for several big plays. The description of Maurer reminds me a lot of JT Shrout, the current Tennessee freshman who has impressed and has a fairly nice chance of being the No. 2 quarterback to start the season.
“Which group makes the bigger jump in productivity this season, the O-line or D-line?” – @whalen614
Nathanael: I think it’s the offensive line, and I don’t even think it’s that close. I think the defensive line will show improvement, but I really like what Will Friend is doing with UT’s offensive line and how they’re looking from a physicality perspective. I don’t expect them to be elite this season or anything, but I do think they’ll be improved quite a bit from last year.
Ben: As we know, Pruitt’s a defensive-minded coach, so naturally, every position on the defense will be improved. From a talent standpoint, I think the offensive line will take a big step forward under offensive line coach Will Friend. The former Colorado State coach is regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country and the players love him. With a new level of physicality, I think the group will take a huge step forward.
“Best position group at end of season and worst position group at seasons end. Who is Best and worst after all is said and done?” – Dewey
Nathanael: Good question. I think UT’s best position group by the end of the season will be their running backs, and I think the worst will be their defensive line. Tennessee’s running backs already look good, and I think they’ll just get better as the season goes on. I don’t think the defensive line will be awful, but I just don’t think they’ll be better than any other defensive unit. I think UT’s corners may start out rough, but I think they’ll come along well as the season progresses. The safeties are already good in my opinion, and I think the linebackers will be solid too. The depth on the line just worries me right now.
Ben: By the end of the season, Tennessee’s best position group will be wide receiver. David Johnson is one of the best wide receiver coaches in the country. Just look at what Anthony Miller was able to do at Memphis last season and the impact he’s had on the Denver Broncos’ offense early on in the preseason. Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway are all capable of being a No. 1 receiver. Along with those guys, Brandon Johnson and Jordan Murphy have looked good in camp and are set to have nice seasons.
As for the worst position group, I could see the cornerbacks being the “worst” group on the team solely because the group lacks experience, not talent. I think Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson are going to have excellent careers at Tennessee, but outside of the two freshman and Baylen Buchanan, who can you trust back there at this point? I don’t think Tennessee will have a bad group, but I can see the corners being a weak point solely because they lack a talent.