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Insider Mailing: Time to Show Improvement Edition

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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.

NOTE: Ben is on his honeymoon this week, so it’ll just be Nathanael answering questions this week.

“Who do you expect to make the bigger jump this upcoming season; Bryce Thompson or Alontae Taylor?” – @SirPentious

Nathanael: My money is on Alontae Taylor. I said on Twitter a couple weeks ago that I think he has a huge year as a sophomore. Thompson already “broke out” as a freshman and got a lot of attention. Taylor was still learning his position but still flashed a lot of high quality potential. I think he could be very, very good this year.

“Which will we have more of sacks or passing TDs?” – Seth

Nathanael: Interesting question. Not sure if you mean sacks by the defense or sacks allowed by the offensive line, so I’ll give an answer to both just to play it safe.

I think UT will have more passing touchdowns than sacks allowed, if only slightly. Last season, Tennessee surprisingly only gave up 23 sacks on the year. Guarantano got hit way more often than that after he threw the ball, but he (and Chryst) only ended up being sacked 23 times. As a team, Tennessee threw for 15 touchdowns. I think you’ll see Tennessee get somewhere in the 22-26 passing touchdown range this season, and they’ll give up 18-21 sacks.

As for the other option: Tennessee hasn’t had more passing touchdowns than sacks since 2012 when the Vols threw for 35 touchdowns but only totaled 17 sacks on defense. Last year, Tennessee had 25 sacks on defense but only threw 15 touchdowns on offense. I actually think UT’s sack total could go down slightly or remain just about the same, so my earlier projections for passing touchdowns would be almost exactly equal. But I’m going to go with the side of history on this one and say UT gets more sacks on defense than passing touchdowns on offense.

“Who do you think will be the most improved player in the 2019 season?” – @roy__rogers__

Nathanael: I’m going to go with Dominick Wood-Anderson. I think there are several players you could say here, including Darrell Taylor, Josh Palmer, and Jarrett Guarantano. But in terms of on-paper production and draft stock, I’m going with DWA. He’s gotten a lot of buzz this offseason, and I think he could have a breakout season as long as the offensive line improves enough to where he isn’t needed to be an extra blocker 70 percent of  the time. He’s been working on his deficiencies, and I’m intrigued to see what he brings to UT’s offense.

“Lot of momentum in recruiting right now. Who are the next guys we expect to commit from the 2020 class?” – Matt

Nathanael: In terms of actual announcement dates, there are a couple guys to keep an eye on. Offensive lineman Richie Leonard is announcing on July 5th (though I think he may commit elsewhere), and in-state defensive lineman Corbet Mims is deciding between Tennessee and Ole Miss on July 8th. And although he doesn’t have an announcement date set or anything, I would keep my eyes on four-star in-state defensive end Tyler Baron right now too. He may be ready to commit soon, or he may not. But I’d keep him on my radar.

“If you had to take one, considering everything associated, King or Bailey?” – Nathan

Nathanael: If I could only have one between Haynes King and Harrison Bailey, I’d take Bailey just because he’s been committed to UT longer, has strong connections to Marietta, and has a lot of intangibles that coaches (and myself) really like about QBs. I think King is phenomenal, but part of his ranking is due a little more on potential and upside. Granted, he’s been highly productive in high school, but he doesn’t quite have the polish that Bailey has right now. Both have room to grow and things they need to work on, but if you’re looking for someone to be an immediate contributor and have a little more success, I think Bailey is your guy.

Honestly, though, I don’t think there’s a wrong answer here. I like King’s mobility a lot, and he just has a moxy and confidence about him that I really like. Bailey is a great leader and doesn’t lack confidence himself. If UT only gets one, then I think they’re getting a great QB regardless. If they get both, then the QB competition in 2020 and 2021 is going to be very, very entertaining.

“If Pruitt turned out to be a grandslam hire, odds are we’d know this year. Bama was 7-6 then 12-2 in Saban’s first two years. GA was 8-5 then 13-2 with Kirby. If Pruitt is that caliber of a coach, what would our record be this year?” – Jeremy

“History says if Pruitt doesn’t win at least 8 games in year 2, he’ll never win big here. Agree or disagree?” – Josh

Nathanael: I put both of these together because they’re essentially asking the same thing. I would very much disagree with the sentiment that if Pruitt doesn’t win 8 games this season then he’ll “never win big” at Tennessee. A lot of that data talking about elite coaches in Year 2 of a program didn’t have anywhere close to the rebuild that Pruitt undertook at Tennessee. Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney, etc. didn’t walk into a program that had gone 4-8 the previous season and had missed out on the postseason in five of the last 10 seasons prior to their arrival. That doesn’t even cover all the cultural issues that Pruitt inherited from the Butch Jones era.

But to Jeremy’s point about what would a record for UT look like in order for him to be viewed as a grand slam hire: I think an 8-4 season and a 9th win in a bowl game would do it for me. Tennessee just isn’t in a position that Alabama or UGA was in when Saban and Smart were entering their second seasons, so going from 5-7 to a 10-2 or 11-1 regular season mark just seems unrealistic to me. Going 9-3 this season seems unrealistic in my opinion, actually. But going 8-4 means UT probably only loses to Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Missouri. If they aren’t blown out in any of those games (except maybe the Bama game), then that’s massive improvement from 2018.

“What is your gut instinct on DJ Burns? Do you feel there’s any chance he returns? If not, do you have an idea of what Rick Barnes will do with that open scholarship?” – Tom

“How big of a blow is the DJ Burns transfer to the Vols NCAA tournament chances next season?” – Jeffrey

Nathanael: Again, I felt these two questions asked essentially the same thing, so I went ahead and stuck them together. I would be very surprised if Burns returns to UT. I think he’s gone, and I think he’ll end up transferring to a mid-major if I had to guess. As far as how big of a blow it is to the roster: I think it’s a fairly substantial one. Burns was probably going to get anywhere between 10-15 minutes a game and would be a good rebounder if nothing else. It hurts Tennessee’s frontcourt depth significantly, especially if Uros Plavsic doesn’t get his immediate eligibility waiver passed. If he does, then losing Burns doesn’t hurt nearly as much. But it still hurts. As it is, Tennessee now has John Fulkerson, Zach Kent, Plavsic, and Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua as their main post players at the four and five. Yves Pons will likely see some time as an undersized four this year, too. I still think Tennessee makes it to the NCAA Tournament even with Burns gone, but that changes if Plavsic isn’t eligible. If he can’t play this year, I’m not feeling quite so optimistic.

As for what Barnes will do with the scholarship, I’m not sure. If UT can’t find a one-year grad transfer for a post player to just use a scholarship for this season, they might be better off saving that scholarship for either a 2020 recruit or for a high profile multi-year transfer such as Cleveland State point guard Tyree Appleby. Tennessee can afford a little dip this one season, but they need to be built up for more success in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. If there isn’t a good option for an immediate transfer for this season, it probably behooves UT to save that spot for an elite player in the 2020 class or a higher profile transfer next offseason.

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