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Insider Mailing: Is it Basketball Season Yet 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.

“With lots of players leaving, how many scholarships can we hand out this recruiting cycle?” – @Therealbucknas1

Nathanael: Unfortunately with the new rules established by the NCAA a few years ago, Tennessee won’t be able to dole out any extra scholarships this cycle in recruiting. Gone are the days of the Butch Jones era of signing 30-plus prospects to replenish numbers. Every team is limited to 25 scholarships they can give out per cycle. Now, Tennessee could get a little creative with back counting and blueshirting in this 2020 class if they wanted, but even that won’t get them a ton more room, and then you’re stealing numbers from the 2021 cycle.

“For recruiting, what is Pruitt going to HAVE to sign this year to turn around this team’s deficiencies?” – Evan

Nathanael: Do you mean how many, what positions, or how many four and five-stars? Either way you slice it, though, this 2020 class won’t be enough to fix the team next season. As Ben and I have both said multiple times on here and in our podcasts, Pruitt is facing a multi-year rebuild, and there is no “instant fix” on the horizon. It’s going to take addressing needs in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 classes for UT to get where fans want them to be. The Vols did a really good job of building a strong foundation in the 2019 class, but now they have to add to that. And one more class won’t really turn things around, at least not like how Vol fans want.

Ben: Unfortunately it’s not possible to sign up to 35 players in a class like it is in baseball. Tennessee has too many deficiencies to turn it around in one season. The Vols could use another quarterback, a speedy running back to compliment Tee Hodge, more offensive linemen, and receivers to replace Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Brandon Johnson. Oh, and the Vols are losing their starting tight end. That’s just on offense. Defensively, Pruitt has to overhaul the front-seven like he did last year with the offensive line, and the secondary still needs more talent. It’s going to take several recruiting classes to fix the deficiencies.

“Starting to see some new names that are being offered here lately in football. Do you think they are shifting gears on some players because some targets are falling off or is it standard? An OT and an OLB.” – @hesenij

Nathanael: It’s standard. After the first three or four weeks of the season, prospects start getting highlights together from their first few weeks of their senior seasons. That allows coaches to see how they’re progressing and figure out if they want to offer them or not. I do think Tennessee is probably going to have to move on from some of those five-stars they were hoping for, but I don’t think that’s the case just yet.

Ben: There’s a reason Tennessee leads the country in verbal scholarship offers. It’s standard that more offers begin to be thrown out this time of year, especially if a high school player has performed really well during the first couple weeks of the season.

“Can our coaches turn it around somehow and get this team to 5-6 wins?” – @The_Klassens

Nathanael: I think they can, but I’m not betting on it happening. It can happen, but the likelihood of it happening is very low. To even get to just five wins, you’re asking the Vols to likely win three of their next seven SEC games and beat UAB for that fifth win. Tennessee can do that, because their match-ups with South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt are all winnable. But I think 4-8 or 3-9 records are much more likely than five or six wins at this point.

Ben: Yes, if the quarterback play improves. With good quarterback play, Tennessee is 3-1 at the moment. And good quarterback play gives the Vols a chance in the fourth quarter against Florida. Quarterback isn’t the only problem, though. The defensive line needs to improve, and the secondary needs to step up their game. I’ve seen nothing from Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, or Vanderbilt that says Tennessee doesn’t have a chance to win those games.

“Brian Maurer time?” – @htcook1999

Nathanael: We’ll see, but I’ll be very surprised if Jarrett Guarantano is the only quarterback who plays against Georgia in two weeks. Even if JG starts against the Bulldogs, I have a feeling we’ll see at least one of Tennessee’s backup QBs play in the game. I’m a proponent of going ahead and starting Maurer, but I don’t know if that’s the direction the staff will go right now.

Ben: Not yet. We’re approaching it, but I’m personally not a fan of throwing a freshman out there against Georgia and Alabama. Plus, at their best, Jarrett Guarantano gives Tennessee a better chance at winning games than Brian Maurer — for the time being. Maurer is making the same mistakes as Guarantano, if not more in a smaller sample size. If Guarantano can turn it around, I believe the Vols can win some games down the stretch. I’m not sure if that’s the case with Maurer.

“Are you surprised at how unprepared Vols are at QB (starters and back-ups) with Weinke as position coach? Should Chaney have assisted more with the QBs than with O-line?” – Brian

Nathanael: I’m not surprised Shrout and Maurer are “unprepared.” They’re freshmen who weren’t particularly elite talents coming out of high school. They weren’t high-level four-stars or premier five-stars. It’s tough even for those types of players to come in and be prepared completely for college as true freshmen or redshirt freshmen, let alone players like Shrout and Maurer who were three-star projects. Shrout had a cannon of an arm coming out of high school, but he struggled mightily with accuracy. Maurer is a good runner and has really good intangibles, but he ran a very simple offense in high school, never took a snap outside of the shotgun, and played against some really bad competition.

am surprised at the regression Guarantano has shown, though. And I do wonder if Chaney should’ve spent more time with the quarterbacks rather than the offensive line. But I also don’t know if the O-line would’ve taken the step forward they have this season without Chaney working with them as much. That’s hard to say.

Ben: I don’t believe JT Shrout and Brian Maurer are unprepared. I just think they’re freshmen and they’re playing like freshmen. As for Jarrett Guarantano, like Nathanael, I’m stunned by the fourth-year quarterback’s regression. I did not expect him to win the Heisman this season, but I did expect him to take a step forward this year under Jim Chaney. Instead, he’s taken a humongous step back, and it appears to be all mental.

“Projected starting basketball lineup this year? Which returning player is most improved? Which newcomer has the biggest impact?” – Cole

“What is our projected starting 5 if Uros is ruled eligible and if he is ruled ineligible?” – Caleb

Nathanael: Thought I’d include both of these since the second one asks a variation of the the first part of the first question. I’ll get to my starting five in a second, but as for which player will be most improved and which newcomer has the biggest impact, I’ll go with Jalen Johnson and Josiah-Jordan James. I think Johnson could finally find his role on the team this year and really up his play because of it. I don’t expect him to be a star or anything, but I think the style the Vols will play this year will fit his ability well. And I know it’s a cop out to choose the five-star as the newcomer with the biggest impact, but Josiah-Jordan James has all the hype for a reason. If Uros Plavsic gets eligible, though, he could definitely challenge for that distinction. I also would keep an eye on Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, too.

My starting five with Uros eligible includes him, John Fulkerson, Josiah-Jordan James, Jordan Bowden, and Lamonte Turner. Without Uros, I would keep the other four as starters and also include Zach Kent as the other starter. I wouldn’t count out Yves Pons starting, either.

Ben: My starting five surrounding Uros Plavsic would be Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner in the backcourt, Yves Pons at the three because Rick Barnes loves sticking him on the opposing team’s best ball-handler to begin the game and Oliver Nkamhoua at the four alongside Plavsic.

Without Plavsic, you enter John Fulkerson in his place. Now, if Tennessee decides to go small, you take Pons off the court and put Josiah Jordan-James in. But I think Jordan-James will be the first off the bench with Fulkerson and Jalen Johnson. Johnson could also start over Pons at the three. Needless to say, Barnes has plenty of options.

The expectations for the Vols team this year seems to be just to make the NCAA tournament but what about next season? If the Vols land Springer as many expect they will be bringing in 3 great recruits so should we expect them to compete for an SEC title and Final 4 appearance?” – Jeffrey

Nathanael: Interesting question. I don’t think we’ve had anyone ask us about expectations for next year, but that’s very intriguing. If UT does land five-star Jaden Springer, that’s at least two five-stars the Vols will have on next year’s roster, and they’ll be signing four-star Corey Walker as well. The Vols also have a legit shot at landing four-star power forward PJ Hall or another high profile post player in the 2020 cycle, too. Plus, there’s the chance five-star Josiah-Jordan James stays for his sophomore year, which would give Tennessee three five-star players on the same roster. Throw that in with returning production from this upcoming season and getting Oregon guard transfer Victor Bailey Jr. eligible after sitting out the 2019-20 season, and the 2020-21 season could be very, very fun. I think it’s a tad early to try and figure out what exactly expectations should be, but an SEC title sounds plenty fair to me, as does at least an Elite Eight appearance.

Ben: I would say at minimum, you have to make the Sweet 16. That’s just too much talent that you can’t afford to waste. With Josiah James, Corey Walker, Jaden Springer and Victor Bailey, that’s a ton of talent. Sure, they’ll be lacking the experience of a Jordan Bowden and a Lamonte Turner, but experience isn’t as important in basketball as it is in football. Pair that core with a trio of seniors in Yves Pons, Jalen Johnson, and John Fulkerson, a second year of Uros Plavsic, and a sophomore Oliver Nkamhoua who has impressed early on, and you’ve got yourself a pretty darn good basketball team.

“What are the realistic expectations for the Lady Vols this season in Coach Harper’s first year, and how are things looking on the recruiting trail?” – Tom

Ben: Making the NCAA Tournament is my expectation in year one for Coach Harper and the Lady Vols, and it’s an expectation that I believe they’ll meet. This team has the talent led by Rennia Davis, Zaay Green, Rae Burrell, and freshman Jordan Horston to make some noise. Plus, they have some JUCO additions that could be key additions, as well as Washington State transfer Lou Brown who is finally healthy. Tennessee lacked effort and fight last season, but that won’t be a problem this season.

Recruiting is going fairly well. They’re in on some big time recruits, but they are working behind the eight-ball because of the coaching change.

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