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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 the absence of leadership on the team of late (last 3 games) where have the coaches been?? I know they all have good track records, surely they see that there is an issue with ‘want to.'” – @BoOnTheGo67
Nathanael: The coaches have been there. You can’t instill a sense of “want to” in a player if he truly just doesn’t have the right attitude. And you can’t just cut everyone off the team who acts that way, either. I do think the coaches are somewhat to blame here, because Pruitt is supposed to be a “player’s coach,” but it seems like he’s having trouble connecting with all the players. I mean, no coach can connect fully with every single player on his roster, but this looks worse than normal.
With that being said, though, I do think this is still more on a group of players rather than the coaches as a whole. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m certainly not trying to make excuses for Pruitt and the staff. After this past Saturday, there aren’t any excuses to be had. But having “want to” is more on the players in this situation, and it’s clear that no matter what is done and said to some of them, they just don’t have it. Some have already been parted with, and I imagine you’ll see some more movement throughout the season.
Ben: There’s no excuse for the effort the team has played with over the last three games, but I’m beginning to believe it has a lot to do with the upperclassmen that are left over from Butch Jones’ staff. Jeremy Pruitt’s quote from Vol Calls on Wednesday was very telling.
“It’s like I told the kids today, when things don’t go your way, what are you supposed to do?” Pruitt said. “You’re supposed to put on more steam, right?
“We probably got a few of them that might not be with us. Some of them’s done left. There might be a few more, but that’s OK, they need to get out of our way, because we’ve got a bunch of them over there that are heading in the right direction.”
To me, that quote screams that there aren’t enough players bought in, and based off the decisions of a couple of upperclassmen this week, I believe it has something to do with the leftover culture from the Butch Jones era.
“In your opinion is this the biggest game in school history? I believe it is for one reason: if Tennessee loses to BYU we will be looking right at 1-11 and I don’t think this program will ever recover from that.” – Sam
Nathanael: I don’t know that I’d go that far. I’m pretty certain I’d put the national championship game in January of 1999 ahead of this weekend’s game against BYU. But I get what you’re saying, minus the hyperbole. It’s a very, very important game because, as you said, a loss on Saturday puts Tennessee in dire straits. If the Vols fall to 0-2 to start the year, they’re very likely looking down the barrel of a historically bad season. It’s suddenly the most important game of the Vols’ 2019 season, that’s for sure. Everyone on the roster and coaching staff should be on Code Red right now.
Ben: No. Tennessee’s biggest game in school history was the National Championship game in January of 1999. It’s most definitely the biggest game to date of the terrible decade that has been Tennessee football, though. If the Vols lose on Saturday, they’ll be staring a potential 1-7 start right in the face — which would likely result in Tennessee finishing with the worst record in program history.
“Should we expect Neyland to be pretty full on Saturday? Night game, beer, and nationally televised.” – Alex
Nathanael: I’ll be very interested to see what attendance is like on Saturday. Earlier in the week, I thought UT would be lucky to get 75,000 to show up. Now that the game is closer, I think 90,000 is possible. I definitely don’t expect a sellout or anywhere close to it, but I do think you’ll have more than what showed up this past Saturday. A lot of people have had BYU game tickets for a while, and it’s a game many fans have looked forward to.
Ben: They may announce close to 100,000, but I don’t believe Neyland Stadium will be that full. A lot of BYU fans are making the trip to experience Knoxville and the pageantry of Tennessee football. So, in addition to the BYU fans, I think there will be enough Tennessee fans to get to around 95,000. The announced attendance will be much different than the actual attendance in the stadium.
“Do you expect the Vols to continue rotating the O-line like we did vs Ga St? And how do you expect JG to play?” – @The_Klassens
Nathanael: Yes, I do. Jeremy Pruitt essentially said as much this week when he met with the media. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best idea, but I also don’t think you had a solid group of five emerge from Saturday’s loss to Georgia State. So maybe it’s just something that’s going to happen regardless.
As for Guarantano’s play: I think he’ll do okay, but I’m not expecting anything flashy. At this point, I’m not expecting a great deal from him or the offense until they can block better in the run game. Defenses will be able to stop Tennessee’s run without having to do a whole lot schematically because of the lack of push from UT’s offensive line, and that allows them to have more freedom when it comes to defending the pass and sending creative blitzes.
Ben: Based off of Pruitt’s comments this week, yes I do. It still doesn’t feel like Tennessee has settled on five guys, and that’s pretty telling as to the state of the offensive line. There isn’t a single good offensive line in the country that rotates as many guys as Tennessee is planning on doing. Will Friend and Jim Chaney need to find the five best offensive line and let them grow together as a unit. Enough with the cross-training and musical chairs.
“So, it looks like Pruitt is running off the deadweight/toxic jerks. But, why the hell wasn’t this done in the off season?” – @VolManInVA
Nathanael: Pruitt said all offseason that the buy-in from his players was much higher this year than it was last year, and maybe that was the case in the spring and summer. But it seemed like once fall camp started and the heat turned up on the 2019 season as it inched closer, some of those players reverted back to old habits and just tuned out. You didn’t see people start going into the transfer portal until fall camp started, and now you’ve had three players leave the team over the last two weeks. If their attitudes were problems over the offseason, I think they would’ve been pushed out before now. They were fine until they hit adversity in a game or until it looked like they weren’t going to play as big of a role as they thought because they lost their starting job. Then, they became a problem.
Ben: Pruitt isn’t in a position to run a ton of people off because of the state of the roster. Look at the depth chart — Tennessee doesn’t really have depth anywhere. So, you factor in Pruitt trying to give the players a chance to make things right under the new staff and simply needing players, and I think that’s why you didn’t see this over the summer. You’ll probably start to see it now, though.
“Why hasn’t Banks been given another chance to run the ball? He brings that force every time he runs.” – Torrey
Nathanael: He’s apparently more needed on defense than he is on offense. He played a decent amount at linebacker on Saturday against Georgia State, and he looked okay considering it was his first major game action at linebacker in his career. He clearly still has a lot to learn, but there’s potential there. Plus, he was passed up on the depth chart by Eric Gray and looked to be running fourth at running back. He definitely brings a different dimension and has a body no one else in UT’s running back room has, but now Aaron Beasley has been moved back there, and he’s built similarly to Banks.
Ben: Because the defense needs him more at inside linebacker. He was fourth on the depth chart at running back, too. Eric Gray, Tim Jordan, and Ty Chandler are all better running backs. Plus, someone who was at practice all last year said that Banks is a better linebacker than running back. It may not seem like it right now, but I think Banks is better suited on defense long-term.
“Where is JJ Peterson and any update on Bryce Thompson?” – Michael
Nathanael: I think it was pretty telling that Peterson didn’t play much at all on Saturday. That seemed like a prime opportunity for him to get some snaps and get acclimated, but I saw Jeremy Banks out there more than him, and Banks was still practicing as a running back three weeks ago.
No, nothing new on Bryce Thompson. He had his initial hearing on Tuesday of this week, but he’s not scheduled to appear in court again till around the 23rd I believe.
Ben: JJ Peterson is third on the depth chart behind everybody who is on scholarship. He has a ways to go on-and-off the field before he becomes a contributor.
“How bad do we really suck?” – @MrLancero
Nathanael: We’ll see on Saturday. BYU was gashed in the second half on the ground by Utah, so if Tennessee gets repeatedly stonewalled by the Cougars’ front seven and also can’t stop BYU’s offense, then I’m afraid the answer to this is “really, really badly.”
Ben: Pretty bad, and it’s because Tennessee isn’t strong enough up front on both sides of the ball. You can’t win at an elite level if you can’t run the ball, stop the run, or generate a push on offense and defense. Unfortunately, the Vols can’t do any of those things efficiently at the moment. Saturday will be telling. Either Georgia State was a fluke, or this is the worst team in program history.