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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.
“Why are people sleeping on BYU? They are better up front than Tennessee, their QB had a ridiculous bowl game, and they went to Wisconsin and pulled the upset. If you listen to talk radio and other people in the media they have it down as a automatic win.” – Sam
Nathanael: I agree that people are sleeping on them, but I wouldn’t go as far to say that they’re “better up front” than the Vols. Though, they have fewer question marks than UT at the lines of scrimmage. Still, BYU looks plenty dangerous to me. It helps that the Vols get them in Neyland under the lights, but BYU won’t be a cakewalk. Their QB, Zach Wilson, was solid once he got to start in October. He finished with 1,578 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions while completing 65.9 percent of his 182 pass attempts. He also ran for 221 yards and two touchdowns on 75 carries. That bowl game you mentioned saw him play to absolute perfection. He completed all 18 of his pass attempts for 317 yards and four touchdowns.
But that was against Western Michigan. And while BYU does return Wilson at QB and a promising duo at running back, I’m not sure how good their defense is going to be, and their offensive line wasn’t great last season either. They allowed 29 sacks (which is more than Tennessee allowed) and 81 tackles for loss (11 fewer than UT). And they weren’t facing SEC defenses, either. I still think people are absolutely sleeping on them, but I would still be somewhat surprised if they pulled off the upset.
Ben: Because of the logos on the side of the helmet, and Tennessee fans don’t take opponents like BYU seriously. Based off Tennessee’s history, fans assume that it’s an automatic win. But it’s not.
Now, I do believe the Vols will win, but if the same offensive line shows up from last season, they may very well lose. Defensively, if an inexperienced defensive line isn’t ready to play, then quarterback Zach Wilson could present problems.
“What is UT’s biggest must-win game this season?” – @SirPentious
Nathanael: I think you could go a number of ways with this. To me, the BYU game is a “must-not-lose” more than it is a “must-win.” That may be semantics, but that’s how I view it. To me, the must-win game is South Carolina. I think, much like last season, if the Vols lose that game, they could miss out on a bowl game. If Tennessee beats the Gamecocks in Columbia last year, they somehow go 6-6 and make it to a bowl game, and we’re all feeling quite a bit differently right now. They didn’t, though, and Will Muschamp remained undefeated against the Vols. I think with where that game falls on the schedule this year and with the other games UT is likely to lose, that’s my answer.
Ben: Vanderbilt. Plain and simple in my book. The Vols have lost three in a row to an inferior program, and although it’s a four-year rebuild for Jeremy Pruitt, he’ll be on the hot seat following the season if he can’t beat the Commodores. That would be four-straight losses and six of the last eight that Vandy would have won. It’s one thing to lose once every now and then to Vanderbilt, but it should never happen as often as it has recently.
“Is there a game on the schedule this year that sets up like Auburn last year? What is this year’s game that Tennessee wins when all have said there is no way they win?” – Russell
Nathanael: At the moment, I don’t see one that lines up the same way Auburn did last year. You have to remember, it wasn’t just that the Vols had extra time to prepare for the Tigers because they were coming off a bye week; Auburn had some major dysfunction going on in their locker room at the time. Tennessee will be coming off a bye week when they host Georgia this year, so maybe that one, but I struggle to say that game because the Bulldogs are the second-most talented team UT will face this season. And that’s only because Tennessee also plays Alabama. The Vols also face Missouri on the road after they come off a bye week, so that could potentially be one as well. I feel better saying that one than I do the Georgia game.
Ben: The Florida game.
The conversation about moving the Florida-Tennessee game has always existed, but this year, it benefits the Vols that it is going to be played early in the season. The Gators are replacing four starters off of a really good offensive line from last season. Now they’re left with a starting O-line that has just one career start amongst them. Yes, the game is on the road, but if Tennessee’s defensive line can come to life and fluster Feleipe Franks, that’s a game the Vols could win.
“Should the worst possible thing happen and JG gets hurt, do you see Shrout or Mauer stepping in? I don’t personally see it happening, but any chance at all that Jauan Jennings could be an emergency QB or have some packages designed for him?” – Tom
Nathanael: I don’t think you’ll see Jauan Jennings at quarterback unless all three of the other scholarship QBs go down with injury. You might see a play or two with Jennings as a gadget QB, but even then I’d be surprised. The only reason you saw Tennessee do that in the past with him was because you had Josh Dobbs at quarterback, a guy who was skilled enough and fast enough to be used as a legitimate wide receiver. Jarrett Guarantano doesn’t fit that bill.
As for your first question: I said before in a previous mailbag that if Guarantano gets hurt and has to miss time early in the season, it’ll probably be JT Shrout who steps in. But the longer the season goes on, the more I believe Brian Maurer ends up overtaking Shrout for the No. 2 spot. So if JG gets hurt in late October or in November, it could be interesting to see who steps in.
Ben: JT Shrout will likely be the guy that takes over if Jarrett Guarantano has to come out for just one play, and he’ll also be the man if he has to start a string of games. He’s more experienced, has a nice arm, and likely wouldn’t turn the ball over as much as Brian Maurer. Tennessee’s coaches were high on Shrout last fall camp, actually preferring him over Keller Chryst if Guarantano had to miss an extended period of time.
I would imagine Jauan Jennings is the emergency quarterback if a pass is needed to be made, but because of his injury history, they would likely use a quicker wide receiver or a running back in a wildcat situation. Jennings simply can’t move like he used to.
“Who is the most likely ‘gadget player’ that Tennessee will deploy? (i.e. a player switching positions for 1-2 plays, etc)” – @patrickgipson
Nathanael: If Jim Chaney elects to do this (which there’s no guarantee he will), I think you’d see Quavaris Crouch used as a running back. He excelled there in high school, and he could be used as a goal line guy like you saw AJ Johnson used in 2014. But that would likely only happen if Jeremy Banks keeps having fumbling issues or is hurt. Otherwise, Banks should be UT’s bruising, goal line back this year.
Ben: Quavaris Crouch is the big gadget back who would likely be used along the goal line to power into the end zone. Other sneaky options would be Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson, or Jordan Murphy. I particularly like Taylor and Thompson. Taylor played on offense in high school, and both of them are great athletes and pure football players. They could most definitely make plays on the offensive side of the ball. After all, Taylor almost played wide receiver when he arrived on campus last year.
“How confident are we with a freshman playing the most important OL position (LT)?” – Jimmy
Nathanael: Right now, either Wanya Morris or Darnell Wright look like the odds-on favorites to play at left tackle, but I wouldn’t just count out Marcus Tatum, either. But if it does come down to either Morris or Wright starting at LT, I would definitely be nervous but also somewhat optimistic. Five-star offensive tackles who have had to play as true freshman have usually performed well as of late. Jackson Carman for Clemson and Cade Mays for Georgia in 2018 are examples, as are Walker Little at Stanford and Trey Smith for the Vols in 2017. Isaiah Wilson for Georgia in 2017 is another positive example.
Ben: I wouldn’t say I’m confident because who could be confident about playing a true freshman at left tackle? Regardless of how talented they are, it’s still a question. But with Tennessee’s current state of offensive linemen, the Vols don’t have an option. The good news is that Wanya Morris was an early enrollee and should be as ready as possible come the season opener.
“LT-Wanya Morris LG-Jamir Johnson C-Brandon Kennedy RG-Trey Smith(if available) RT-Darnell Wright. If smith can’t go then put Jerome Carvin at RG does this seem like the likely starting O Line to start the season?” – @htcook1999
Nathanael: If Trey Smith is healthy, I think that might be the starting five, though I think Smith would be at left guard and I wouldn’t count out Ryan Johnson giving Jahmir Johnson a run for his money at right guard. I can also see Marcus Tatum starting the season at one of the tackle spots before either Morris or Wright. But more or less, I think that’s a fairly accurate starting five.
Ben: Assuming Trey Smith is healthy, I see it being Wanya Morris at left tackle, Smith at left guard, Brandon Kennedy at center, Ryan Johnson at right guard, and Marcus Tatum at right tackle until Darnell Wright is ready to play. At right guard, it’ll be a three-way competition between Johnson, Jerome Carvin, and K’Rojhn Calbert.
If Smith isn’t able to play, I think it’ll be Morris at left tackle, Jahmir Johnson at left guard, Kennedy at center, Johnson, Calbert, or Carvin at right guard, and Tatum or Wright at right tackle.
“With Tee and Chaney, and the fact we have 4 WR’s leaving after this year why aren’t we attracting big time guys? I’m sure winning will help.” – Stevie
Nathanael: Just give it time. The Vols are in on several high-profile wide receivers, including four-star Jalin Hyatt who is visiting this weekend. You’re right in saying that winning will help, but a lot of the WRs the Vols are fishing for also aren’t expected to announce any time soon. And there’s also the fact that UT is going after wide receivers who are already committed to other schools, such as five-star Rakim Jarrett (LSU) and four-star Thaiu Jones-Bell (Alabama).
Ben: Tennessee is absolutely attracting big time wide receivers right now. Just because none are committed at the moment doesn’t mean they aren’t attracting anybody. The Vols are in great position to land five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett and have positioned themselves to make a move on four-star Arian Smith, four-star Thaiu Jones-Bell, four-star Kris Abrams-Draine, and speedy four-star Jalin Hyatt.
Another thing to remember is that the wide receiver position isn’t strong in the state of Tennessee this recruiting cycle.