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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 Solomon cleared are your expectations for the D line any higher?” -@roy__rogers__
“How big of an impact will Solomon be for the d line? Enough to make a difference in win percentages??” – @VolHobbit
Nathanael: My expectations for Tennessee’s defensive line now that Solomon is officially eligible do raise slightly, but I still don’t know how much I really expect from them. Losing Emmit Gooden for the season was a big blow that can’t be understated. It also can’t be understated how big of a boost it was to get Solomon eligible. I think he could be the best player in the unit this season, but that could mean any number of things. Just because he’s the best doesn’t mean he’ll be phenomenal. I also don’t know if his addition to the unit will result in a bump in UT’s win percentage this season. It certainly doesn’t hurt, obviously, but the defensive line is more than just one person. If he were a quarterback or running back or pass rusher, I’d say definitely. But as part of the defensive line in a 3-4 system, I don’t think it gives Tennessee an additional win or anything.
Ben: Yes, my expectations do raise for the group — but slightly. And frankly, it’s in the sense of I’m putting a lot of weight on Aubrey Solomon to carry the defensive line. That may be unfair to Solomon, but it’s the reality of the current state of the defensive line. He’s the best linemen Tennessee has, and it may not be very close.
As for the team, it doesn’t change my win total for the season — which is six or seven wins in the regular season. Even with Solomon, the defensive line still lacks playmakers and production heading into the season. Solomon may be able to carry the group, but at some point, somebody is going to have to step up and make plays next to him.
“Do you expect the Bryce Thompson issue to be resolved before Florida?” – Sam
“With Bryce Thompson out indefinitely, what player(s) not named Warren Burrell is now going to be depended on more than originally expected?” – @vo_ldemort
Nathanael: The Bryce Thompson stuff took an unexpected turn on Tuesday night with the report of the restraining order that was filed against him back during his time in high school. I would assume that UT’s coaches knew about that when they brought him in, so I don’t think that’ll have any bearing on his current punishment. With that being said, this is an extremely delicate and complex issue that won’t be resolved probably as quickly as Vol fans would like. The next major step in the process will come on September 3rd when Thompson is scheduled to appear in court. We’ll know more after that, but I do think it gets resolved (one way or another) before the Florida game.
As for who could step up besides Burrell: Shawn Shamburger is an obvious choice since he was listed as a co-starter along with Burrell and will likely man the nickel spot. But I also wouldn’t count out seeing a decent amount of Kenneth George Jr. in the secondary. I’ll be interested to see how much true freshman Jerrod Means plays, too.
Ben: I would be somewhat surprised if the situation isn’t resolved by the Florida game. That’s four weeks away, and in my mind, plenty of time to determine whether or not Thompson deserves a third chance. Based off what was reported on Tuesday by Blake Toppmeyer of the Knoxville News Sentinel, I’ll be surprised if he plays football at Tennessee again.
Freshman Warren Burrell will slide in and replace Thompson, meaning to begin the season, Tennessee will rely on Kenney Solomon and Jerrod Means to step up and provide depth at corner. Shawn Shamburger appears to be poised to be the starter at nickel.
Solomon and Means haven’t played a snap of college football, while Means is a converted wide receiver. The potential problem may not show the first three weeks of the season, but it’ll definitely be put to the test against Florida at the end of September.
“Thank ya Jesus! Its football time in Tennessee! Will we score a special teams touchdown against Georgia State?” – @Therealbucknas1
Nathanael: Georgia State was actually pretty good in punt and kick return coverage last season. They didn’t allow a special teams touchdown all season and ranked 40th nationally in opponent kick return average and in the top 70 in punt return yardage allowed per return. So I’m going to say no, though Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler are both capable of ripping off big returns.
Ben: Yes, Marquez Callaway returns a punt for a touchdown.
“What is the issue on JJ Peterson? Nobody talks about the kid that was supposed to do great things and wasn’t listed on the depth chart.” – Payton
Nathanael: Well, he actually was listed in the depth chart. He was the backup at weakside linebacker behind the slated co-starters of Henry To’oto’o and Shanon Reid. Plus, with Daniel Bituli likely out for the Georgia State game, I imagine we’ll see Peterson play a decent amount in Week 1.
The reason he isn’t talked about, though, is because he’s no longer the new, shiny toy in the LB group like last year. He was talked about a bit at the beginning of fall camp because he got off to a rough start, but then he started doing better, and it became more of a “no news is good news” type of thing with him. To’oto’o, Quavaris Crouch, and Roman Harrison got talked about and asked about more this fall because they were the new guys in the group. I still don’t think Peterson will live up to his top-50 billing in 2019, but I think you’ll see marked improvement from him.
Ben: He’s just not in top-notch shape like his fellow inside linebackers and doesn’t appear to have nailed down the playbook completely. Inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer is consistently getting on to Peterson or pulling him to the side to work with him individually. There’s still quite a bit of hope for Peterson, but right now, he’s simply behind Daniel Bituli, Will Ignont, Henry To’oto’o, Shannon Reid, and maybe even Jeremy Banks who was moved to the position late last week.
“What team will Tennessee beat this year that they shouldn’t and what team will Tennessee lose to they shouldn’t, if any?” – Patrick
Nathanael: If Tennessee is going to beat a team they “aren’t supposed to” or a team they’ll be underdogs against, I think it’ll be Florida. Now, am I going to pick the Vols to beat the Gators in Gainesville? No, I’m not. But that’s the team I’d circle. I think Tennessee will be underdogs against them, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri for sure. So by that logic, I think the most likely win of all those is against the Gators. On the flipside, I’ll say they could lose to Mississippi State despite likely being favored in Neyland Stadium. That game still worries me even with the news about some players being suspended for a large chunk of this upcoming season. I’ve chalked that one up as a loss for a while, and it’ll take one or two of those suspended players being projected starters for me to really change my mind.
Ben: There are four games that I believe Tennessee shouldn’t win simply because Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri are better overall football teams than the Vols. But the weakest of the four is Florida and would be my vote for the game that UT could win that would be the most surprising. Feleipe Franks is easily rattled, and with a shaky offensive line, if Darrell Taylor and Aubrey Solomon could have big days, Tennessee could absolutely win that game.
As for the game that would be the most surprising to see Tennessee lose would be the Vanderbilt game. Outside of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and Kalija Lipscomb, the Commodores don’t have a whole lot. Vandy will have a new starting quarterback, have questions along the offensive line, and return a defense that was bad last season. An improved Tennessee team has no business losing to the Commodores.
“What is your gut feeling on how many wins we have this year? I think it’s 8-4 or 7-5.” – Anthony
Nathanael: My gut feeling for months and months has been 7-5 in the regular season with a chance of getting that 8th win in a bowl game depending on who UT gets matched up with. Our full season predictions will come out later this week, so be on the lookout for that.
Ben: I’m in the 6-6 or 7-5 boat. Best case scenario, Tennessee picks up an eighth win in the bowl game. Yes, the Vols’ schedule is easier than in years past, but I don’t feel like the quality of opponent on Tennessee’s schedule has been talked about enough. Instead, too many are simply looking at the logos on the side of the helmet and assuming the Vols will win.
Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri will all be tough games for Tennessee to pull off an upset. And on top of that, BYU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Kentucky are all going to be strong opponents. Tennessee could lose any of those games just as easily as they could win it. With the current state of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and the lack of depth both at linebacker and in the secondary, I find it hard to believe the Vols will win all four of the mentioned toss-up games. Georgia State, Tennessee-Chattanooga, UAB, and Vanderbilt are the only guaranteed wins in my mind.
“Is there a scenario where we could potentially fit Gilbert and Washington on the same field now that it seems Gilbert will be playing wr at next level? Heard reports they do not want to be at same school together.” – @hesenij
Nathanael: I think there’s a scenario that could happen, but I wouldn’t count on it happening. If I had to guess right now, I’d say the Vols have a pretty good shot at landing Arik Gilbert, but Darnell Washington is likely UGA-bound. I also have never heard anything definite about the two not wanting to play together in college. Everything I’ve seen of that has been Internet rumor and speculation.
Ben: Tennessee has been recruiting Arik Gilbert as a wide receiver throughout the entirety of the process. I would be surprised to hear if the rumors Gilbert and Darnell Washington don’t want to play together turned out to be true. The Vols are in great position with both five-star talents, and it would be astonishing if they could bring both in. Oh, and Rakim Jarrett. It sounds crazy, but it’s a possibility.
“Is our basketball team even going to be a top 25 team this next coming season?” – Levi
Nathanael: First of all, I just want to say it makes me happy to be getting questions about Tennessee’s men’s basketball team with the football season just a handful of days away from kicking off. Two years ago, this wouldn’t be happening. So that’s pretty cool.
Secondly, I don’t know that they’ll be a top 25 team, but they’ll be good enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament and finish in the top six of the SEC, in my opinion. That depends largely on if Uros Plavsic gets eligible and if a few of the returning players can step up, but I have more faith in Rick Barnes and his staff than I’ve had in any previous Tennessee coaching staff in the last decade when it comes to developing players and getting them to realize their potential.
Ben: Tennessee may start the season in the top-25 as a sign of respect for what all it has accomplished the last two years, but I also wouldn’t be surprised it the Vols aren’t ranked due to all of the production they are losing. At some point, though, Tennessee will be a top-25 team. What will determine how much of the season the Vols are a top-25 team will rely on the shoulders of Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, whether Uros Plavsic becomes immediately eligible, and how big of a freshman campaign Josiah-Jordan James has.
“Vols are in on several amazing hoops recruits. Do we get Springer? Who else – your best guess? Best recruiting class in history? Barnes is cooking with grease!” – @PeteHastings1
Nathanael: There’s still a lot that could change between now and the fall signing period in men’s hoops, but my gut feeling right now says that yes, Tennessee does end up landing five-star Jaden Springer. Unless UNC suddenly pulls out the full court press on him or Memphis continues to pick up more momentum with him, I think UT ends up getting him. It helps that he’s taking his last official visit to Tennessee’s campus before making a decision, and that visit will come when the football team hosts Georgia. He’ll also be accompanied by Tennessee’s two 2020 commits, five-star Keon Johnson and borderline five-star Corey Walker.
Ben: North Carolina and Memphis scare me with Jaden Springer. The Tar Heels are the home-state team, and Penny Hardaway hasn’t missed out on a recruit he has zeroed in on to this point. But with Tennessee receiving Springer’s last official visit, it could play a major role in signing him. I like the Vols’ chances, but I’m not willing to call them the favorite.