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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.
“On JG — people keep pointing to AU game last year to make case for his talent. I think he’s more like a role player in bball who got hot from 3 and dropped 27 pts outta nowhere and then goes back to mediocre. What are your thoughts?” – @AirForceVol
Nathanael: You know, that may be an apt comparison at this point. I admitted earlier this week that I’ve been wrong on Guarantano and my assessment of him. I never thought he’d be an All-SEC type of quarterback, but I thought he could get decently better than what he was last season. I still think he can improve and turn some things around this season, but I don’t know that he’s ever going to be a star or a significant difference-maker at QB. He’s a game manager with the ability to make some deep throws. I do think comparing him to a role player in basketball isn’t a bad comparison, though I would say he’s a role player who would be like the sixth man off the bench or a starter who isn’t one of the top three guys, but is still able to do stuff to help you win. But when he has a bad night, it can go really, really bad.
Ben: That’s a very interesting comparison — one that I won’t fault anyone for making. But it’s more than just the Auburn game. Guarantano also played really well against Kentucky and South Carolina last year. And I also think everyone throwing out his 6-13 record as a starter is unfair because of how terrible of a situation he was in the previous two years. Guarantano hasn’t been good through two games to this point in the 2019 season, however. It’s been extremely surprising, but I’m in the boat that it’s mostly mental with him. If he can snap out of it, he’s going to help Tennessee win some games this year. If not, he’ll be on the bench by the end of October.
“Do you think its an overreaction from fans panicking about the coaching staff or is it warranted?” – @roy__rogers__
Nathanael: I don’t blame Vol fans for having a lot of questions about this coaching staff and for being worried they won’t be able to get it done, but I do think quite a bit of it is overreaction, yes. I myself have had a lot more questions raised about this staff — specifically Pruitt — to start this season, but I’m withholding significant judgement until either later this season or in 2020. I don’t think some people still truly understand how bad of a hand Pruitt and his coaches were dealt when they took over. I don’t think they understood until they kept digging and spending more time with the team and with the support staff at UT.
Ben: Yes, because the BYU game is squarely on the players — mainly the starting quarterback. Tennessee could have won 30-13 had the offense taken advantage of all of its breaks on BYU’s side of the 50, and Alontae Taylor’s gaffe is squarely on him. Theo Jackson stated on Tuesday that Jeremy Pruitt explicitly told the secondary to keep BYU’s receivers in front of them and in-bounds. Taylor didn’t do so, and Nigel Warrior whiffed on a tackle he has to make. That’s not on the coaches.
Folks can pin the Georgia State game on Pruitt, and rightfully so, but not the BYU game. Pruitt still needs talent, and the culture is still being built. That’s been evident through the first two games of the season. To bail two games into Year 2 is a tad extreme.
“Will we see a backup quarterback emerge against Chattanooga? If not, what’s going on there?” – Evan
Nathanael: I’m not sure what your definition of “emerge” is, but I don’t know that either Shrout or Maurer will separate from each other. This will be the first time either has played in an actual collegiate football game (assuming both actually get to see the field against UTC), so I don’t know that there will be a significant enough amount of game film to analyze from both to really name one as the No. 2 guy over the other.
Ben: One will definitely play against the Mocs, and if that quarterback goes in and performs well — yes. If I was Jim Chaney, I would have Guarantano out of the game as quickly as possible, assuming the game is in hand, in order to get both JT Shrout and Brian Maurer some snaps. But if only one goes in and impresses, you have to imagine they’ll be deemed the backup going forward.
“Does Bituli return, and if he does, how does getting him and Thompson back change UT’s defense?” – David
Nathanael: I’ll be interested to see if Daniel Bituli returns this weekend, and if he does, how many snaps he plays. I think whenever he returns, though, you’ll see some of the issues with UT’s defense get shored up. Bituli can get people lined up in the front seven, and maybe he’ll help Pruitt keep from having to burn timeouts to get players lined up correctly and in the right play on defense. As for Thompson: He brings a dynamic to UT’s defense that they just don’t have right now. He’s definitely one of the three best defenders on Tennessee’s team, and they desperately need his ability to create turnovers. No other player on UT’s roster last season was better at forcing turnovers than Thompson. As a true freshman, Thompson picked off three passes and forced a fumble.
Ben: Yes, Daniel Bituli returns, but he won’t play a ton of snaps. He doesn’t need to, and his availability for the Florida game is a thousand times more important. Bryce Thompson’s return absolutely changes Tennessee’s defense, and for the better. He’s arguably the Vols best defender and would add much-needed talent to a secondary that lacks both talent and depth. Plus, Tennessee has struggled to generate turnovers through two games. Thompson is a turnover machine.
“What does the coaching staff have to do to make sure this team doesn’t quit? This team will more than likely be 1-6 when South Carolina comes to Neyland ,and fan interest will be at an all time low how do the players and coaches handle that?” – Sam
Nathanael: That’s a really, really good question. I don’t know that I can answer that unless (or maybe until?) we get to that point of the season. A lot can happen between now and late October, and I’m talking about more players leaving the team, injuries, etc. between now and then. I think it all depends on the atmosphere in and around the team at that point, and how ugly those losses have been. Maybe UT won’t be 1-6 at that point, but I have a hard time imagining they’ll be any better than that. At best, they’ll likely be 2-5. I guess 3-4 is in the realm of possibility, but I’m sure not betting on that.
Ben: That’s a great question. I would make sure every single player on the team understands that they don’t have a job from week-to-week. Nothing is guaranteed, and if you want to play, you’re going to have to work. Playing time is the ultimate motivator. The players and coaches shouldn’t worry about fan interest being at an all-time low because it’s their fault if it is. They didn’t want to play with effort against Georgia State and lost because of it. If they want the fans to be more engaging — play with effort each and every single week.
“Is JJ Peterson going to contribute soon?” – TJ
“What is going on with JJ Peterson?” – Grant
Nathanael: He’s just not ready. Whether it’s mentally or physically, Peterson just isn’t in the spot to play ahead of guys like Will Ignont, Henry To’oto’o, Shanon Reid, or even Jeremy Banks. Maybe the light will click on by November, but I’m not so sure.
Ben: No. J.J. Peterson simply isn’t ready from a conditioning standpoint and doesn’t have a great grasp of the playbook.
“What do you think the QB room will look like next year? The addition of Hill may be huge for us. If he can get mobility back from injury, it could give us a dynamic we haven’t had in a while and may not force us to put Bailey out there right away.” – @hesenij
Nathanael: I don’t know that Maryland transfer Kasim Hill has what it takes to win the starting job and be an effective SEC quarterback. Then again, it’s pretty unfair to judge him on what he did at Maryland because he looked pretty solid as a true freshman before tearing his ACL. He recovered pretty quickly from that injury, but in speaking to people who cover the Terps, it looked like that injury bothered him all season, and he was never really himself. Then, he injures his other ACL in 2018. That’s a lot to overcome, and I don’t know that he’ll ever have the same type of mobility he did as a freshman. He already wasn’t exactly a dynamic dual-threat even back then, but he had the movement to extend plays and pick up several yards on the ground if needed.
Ben: The quarterback room should be extremely competitive next fall, and it should be five-deep assuming nobody transfers. Hill will definitely bring a dimension to the position that has been lacking since Josh Dobbs departed, but I’m more interested to see if the Maryland transfer can be more accurate with the football.
I will be very intrigued to see what Guarantano does. If the season continues down the path it is, I would be a graduate-transfer if I were him. A transfer would serve well for both sides, as it would provide a new start for both parties. I’m also interested to see if Shrout and Maurer both stick around to see if they can beat out Harrison Bailey for the job. Regardless, it’ll be one of the deepest and most competitive quarterback rooms Tennessee has had in quite some time.
“Does Pruitt hold the 2020 recruiting class together with a losing record this season?” – @BoKeck1
Nathanael: Yes. I think it depends on what your definition of “holding it together” is, but I don’t think UT loses guys like Harrison Bailey, Keshawn Lawrence, or Cooper Mays if they go 4-8 or 5-7. It significantly hurts Tennessee’s chances of landing players like Rakim Jarrett, Sav’ell Smalls, Noah Sewell, and others, but I think the class is still “held together” even if this season goes down the drain. Unless there’s some sort of rift in the locker room or something that would make recruits doubt Pruitt’s ability to control a team or develop players, I think this class stays around the top 20 classes in the 2020 class.
Ben: Yes, because Pruitt has sold the 2020 recruits that are already in the boat on playing time and the future. Those already committed to the Vols didn’t enter the season with huge expectations for this season. If anything, the 0-2 start has assured them that they can come in and play right away. Where it hurts Tennessee is with the elite 5-star talents the Vols are after. It’ll be an extremely hard sell if the season continues down the path it’s on.
“So far, it seems like the 2020 class is staying together and are anxious to get here. What does that say to you guys about the potential future of the football team?” – @SirPentious
Nathanael: To me, it says the players who are currently committed to UT really do believe in the message that Pruitt and his staff are preaching. They also know where UT is, and they know Tennessee just isn’t good. They see opportunity to change that, and I think they see that most of Tennessee’s best players are the young guys, the guys Pruitt and his staff have brought in and have coached and developed from their first day on campus.
Ben: It says a lot. If you look at the current roster and the players that are committed, Tennessee has promising prospects at nearly every position. The only positions that don’t show a ton of promise at the moment is at tight end and defensive line. But even at tight end, the Vols have two freshmen that could grow into productive players. We just haven’t seen anything from them to know one way or another. I know fans are tired of hearing it, but it’s going to take time and patience to flip this roster. It will probably take at least two more recruiting cycles to get Tennessee back to a point of where it has a legitimate chance to compete in the SEC East each year.
“With all these 5 star commits for the 2020 class, even with a big year, do you see Josiah James coming back for his sophomore season to play with those guys?” – @GSix1987
Nathanael: I do. I think unless Josiah-Jordan James has a monster year where he’s a First Team All-SEC type of player, I think he returns for his second season. I don’t know that he stays beyond that, but I do think he at least sticks around for two seasons. Like I said, unless he just has a huge year in the 2019-20 season and it would be stupid for him to not go pro and risk injury in college for another season, I think he stays to play with Keon Johnson, Corey Walker, and whoever else Tennessee can add and bring back from the 19-20 team.
Ben: Depends on how his freshman season goes. If he ends the season with a first-round grade, it would probably be in his best interest that he goes ahead and declares. If he has a second-round grade, the 2020 signing class may weigh heavy in his decision on whether or not to come back to school.