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Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“With Jordan Bone now officially leaving for the draft who do you think could fill the last open spot on the roster?” – Jeffrey
“So- basketball, with Jordan Bone staying in the draft, does TN have another scholarship to give? If so, who do they get?” – Greg
Nathanael: Right now, Tennessee has another spot left for the upcoming 2019-20 season after Bone officially announced he’s staying in the draft. Each Division I basketball team can have 13 scholarship players per season, and UT is sitting at 12. From what I’ve been told, Tennessee is looking to bring in another guard to fill that open spot, but he likely wouldn’t be eligible for this upcoming season but would be for 2020-21. If that doesn’t work out, look for UT to likely just save that spot for a recruit in the 2020 class. The Vols are in on a ton of highly-ranked prospects in that cycle, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing at all.
Ben: I don’t know who specifically, but I do believe Tennessee is exploring its options when it comes to a transfer point guard. Whether that be by way of a graduate transfer or a younger player who is transferring is to be determined. The Vols already have three ball-handlers in Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, and Josiah James so it may not be as big of a need as we think, but it wouldn’t hurt to add another. Especially with the emphasis Rick Barnes places on point guards in his system.
“What’s your projected starting 5 for the Vols? Mine is James, DJ Burns, The Bowden, LTurner, and either Jalen going guard or the big guy if eligible.” – John
Nathanael: If Uros Plavsic does get a waiver to play immediately, I think he for sure starts at the 5. Then you probably have either Zach Kent (I think UT would like to have Plavsic and Kent on the floor at the same time in cases) or DJ Burns at the 4 with John Fulkerson playing 15-20 minutes off the bench in most cases. At the 3, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Jalen Johnson play there, but I think he’ll come off the bench, as would Yves Pons. I think you’ll see a more guard-heavy rotation with those last three spots more often than not, though. Lamonte Turner will be starting, and Jordan Bowden likely will too unless he prefers to play that 6th man role he did last season. Barring any sort of injury, Josiah Jordan-James will start, too, and he could be UT’s point guard along with Turner.
Ben: Rick Barnes has plenty of options. The option that first comes to mind is Lamonte Turner running point, Jordan Bowden playing off the ball, Jalen Johnson playing the three, John Fulkerson playing the four and Uros Plavsic playing the five – assuming the transfer can play right away. If Plavsic, can’t play right away, DJ Burns or Zach Kent will start.
Now, if Johnson doesn’t take another step and Yves Pons isn’t ready to start, I could see Barnes going small with Josiah James, Bowden, Turner, Fulkerson, and Plavsic. But, Barnes also loves Pons on the opposing team’s best ball-handler, so I could see Pons starting in place of James. Barnes values experience and guys he can trust. Until James gets to that point, I think he’ll be coming off the bench because he has two seniors in front of him.
“If Tennessee basketball doesn’t make the tournament next year, is Barnes gonna be on the hot seat already?” – Parker
Nathanael: He shouldn’t be, but I absolutely know that some fans would say he should. That would be idiotic for him to be on the hot seat after one down year, in my opinion. Especially with UT losing four starters with three being All-SEC caliber players.
“Could you see Grant Williams sneaking into the lottery?” – Eric
Nathanael: I would be shocked if he did. If anything, his stock took a little bit of a hit at the NBA Draft Combine, so he’s almost guaranteed to be in the early 20s at the best. I do still think he’s a first-round pick, though. He wouldn’t have kept his name in the draft pool if he didn’t feel that was the case.
Ben: No. NBA teams love athleticism, potential, and youthfulness when it comes to drafting in the lottery. Unfortunately, Grant Williams doesn’t have elite athleticism, isn’t viewed as having all the potential in the world, and is a three-year college player. Plus, Williams’ stock has slipped a little since his rough shooting performance at the combine.
“Is it smart for Pruitt to go after two highly touted QBs in the 20 class?” – @SmithpetersCory
“What are the chances Bailey decommits if King picks the Vols?” – LoweGrady
Nathanael: I paired these two questions together because they feed off each other. It’s definitely smart for Pruitt to go after two highly-rated QBs this cycle. The Vols are going to need two quarterbacks in this class, and why would UT go after some scrub to go along with Harrison Bailey? Tennessee brought in two four-stars in the 2015 class (technically three if you count Jauan Jennings being listed as a QB out of high school), and they brought in two really good QBs back in the 90s with Branndon Stewart and Peyton Manning. UT did similarly in 2004 as well when they had Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge in at the same time. If you recruit scared, you’re losing before you even play/coach.
As for worrying about Harrison Bailey: No, he’s not going to decommit if Haynes King, the QB we’re all talking about here, commits to UT. Bailey has been told all along that UT may bring in two QBs in the 2020 class, and he’s not afraid of competition. People panicking over him changing his social media on Wednesday night have Chicken Little syndrome.
Ben: Yes, it is absolutely smart for Jeremy Pruitt to go get a second quarterback in this class. I don’t think it could happen, but theoretically, Jarrett Guarantano could leave after this season and so could Brian Maurer or JT Shrout. Guarantano is capable of making an NFL roster, and only one of Maurer/Shrout can play. Well, if that scenario plays out and Pruitt only brings in Harrison Bailey, Tennessee would have just two quarterbacks on the roster. Bailey and one of Maurer/Shrout. Even if that scenario doesn’t play out, it’s smart for Tennessee to bring in another quarterback because you just don’t know what may happen in today’s college football because of the transfer portal.
As for the likelihood of Bailey decommitting, I don’t know just how likely the chances are, but they’re much higher than they were a month ago. If you’re Tennessee, you have to find a way to sell him on competing.
“With the rest of the 2019 signing class now on campus, how different do you think the football team will look this fall?” – @SirPentious
Nathanael: I don’t expect this year’s team to really look drastically different from last year’s. I do think they’ll look and play better, but I don’t think you’ll really see a huge difference until Year 3 under Pruitt. By then, players from the 2018 class will be three-year players, and the 2019 signees will be sophomores or redshirt freshmen. You’ll also have freshmen/JUCO players from the 2020 class coming in and ready to contribute. By the 2020 season, you won’t have very many Butch Jones era players left on the roster. That’s when I expect this team to really look different.
Ben: I don’t think it’ll look too much different than what we saw in the spring just because of the simple fact that most of the guys that are expected to contribute were here in the spring. Now, Henry To’oto’o, Savion Williams, Roman Harrison, and Darnell Wright are officially on campus, so naturally the team is better. Those guys could have an early impact, but their arrival doesn’t drastically change the football team for me.
If anything, the best part about the rest of the signing class arriving on campus is that Jeremy Pruitt has more of “his guys” in the program now. That should help change the culture.
“What position do you see the football team having the most improvement at this year?” – @streets_weeper
Nathanael: The offensive line. It honestly can’t get much worse than it did last year, so even improving to just mediocre would be a big upgrade over what last season’s offensive line was. I’ll say the second position I expect to see the most improvement from is the linebackers.
Ben: I agree with Nathanael. I think it’s the offensive line simply because of how bad it was last season. If not the O-line, I believe the defensive backs will take yet another step forward under Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley.
“Realistically speaking, how many of the 2019 signing class are going to have to step up and play significant snaps for this team to take a step forward this year? Not necessarily start but still play a significant role.” – Evan
Nathanael: You don’t need the vast majority of the 2019 class to play significant roles for UT to make a big step forward, but you do need a good number of them to do so. I’ll say the number for me is right around seven guys. That’s not including the two transfers, Aubrey Solomon and Deangelo Gibbs. Including them, I’ll say it’s eight members from the 2019 class.
The players I think need to play significant roles this season from the 2019 group are Wanya Morris, Quavaris Crouch, Jackson Lowe, Darnell Wright, Henry To’oto’o, Savion Williams, Darel Middleton, and Aubrey Solomon. You could add a couple more to that list, too.
Ben: If we’re speaking in terms of depth, I believe a healthy portion of the signing class will need to contribute this season. For a second year head coach, Jeremy Pruitt has a good amount of experience on his roster — at least within the starting rotation. But if Tennessee wants to get to eight wins, the 2019 signing class is going to have to play key snaps in order to establish depth. All good football teams have depth, and right now, the Vols don’t have that.
“What position/area will keep the Vols football team from reaching their greatest potential? What position/area will keep them from having a minimal season?” – Brian
Nathanael: The offensive line or defensive line is the answer to both of those questions for me. The Vols’ success or failure this season hinges on what those two units can do.
Ben: The offensive line AND the defensive line. Right now, Tennessee’s trenches aren’t good enough to compete in the SEC each and every week. That’s not to say the unit hasn’t improved, because it has. But the offensive line is young, and the defensive line has a bunch of unproven players. The trenches will make or break Tennessee’s season.
“Does Pruitt get 8 wins this year?” – Samuel
Nathanael: If you’re including a bowl win, I think it’s very possible, yes. I personally don’t see them getting eight regular season wins, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, either. The Vols would have to only lose to Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and probably a Missouri, Mississippi State, or BYU for that to happen, so it’s certainly not crazy to think so. But I’ve not seen Tennessee overperform on the football field in many, many years. So I’m sticking with a 7-5 regular season right now with a chance for an eighth win in a bowl game.
Ben: Until the offensive line and defensive line prove they have taken a healthy step forward, I’m going to err on the side of caution and say no. It is absolutely possible if you include a bowl game, but both lines of scrimmage HAVE to take a step forward. In order to win in the SEC, teams have to be strong in the trenches. And as of today, there’s no indication that Tennessee is going to be.
(But I do think Tennessee wins seven in the regular season and heads to a bowl game with a chance to win an eighth.)