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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.
“Do you think that lack of use for Eric Gray is attributed to fumble and pass blocking issues or more game plan? And as a follow up to that, are we ever going to incorporate throwing to RBs a little more downfield vs just that awful swing pass?” – @hesenij
Nathanael: I’d say it’s more of the former than the latter for Gray. He’s just not good enough in pass blocking to play over Tim Jordan, and he’s had a couple issues holding on to the ball. Ty Chandler has too, but Chandler is more experienced and has a similar skill set (though Gray can definitely be more explosive). At RB in the SEC, you go with the guy who can help protect your quarterback and won’t get him killed over a guy with better ball skills. Right now, Tim Jordan is earning his snaps in practice more so than Gray.
As for the follow-up question, I’d really like to see that happen, yes. I could understand not doing it very often with the woes of the offensive line, but I don’t think it’s happened at all this season (unless I’m forgetting a time).
Ben: I’d say it’s a combination of both. There’s been a couple of plays this season where Gray has been in the backfield and allowed a sack or a pass deflection because he didn’t get to where he needed to be in order to take on a blitzing defender. Ty Chandler is the No. 1 back so it was going to be hard for Gray to receive a ton of reps over him in the first place. Tim Jordan is the best back Tennessee has in pass protection and hasn’t had the same issues holding onto the football. So, for now, I think Chandler and Jordan are more reliable. But Tennessee still needs to find a way to incorporate Gray because his ability to make a defender miss is something the other two don’t bring to the table.
There’s no need to throw the ball down field to a running back when you have Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer and Dominick Wood-Anderson on your roster. The swing passes have been ugly because both the quarterbacks and running backs haven’t executed it. The play has been set up for success multiple times this year, but an errant throw or a drop has prevented it from happening. Maybe with Brian Maurer at quarterback, it can be more successful.
“Is the problem talent, coaching, or both on the defensive line at this point?” – Evan
Nathanael: I think it’s a little of both, but I’d put a lot more on lack of talent than coaching. Tennessee just doesn’t have a dynamic defensive lineman on their roster right now. If they do, he’s a young guy who isn’t ready to take a heavy workload in the SEC. Pruitt has mentioned Aubrey Solomon has been dealing with an injury for pretty much the whole season, so I guess that can kinda explain that from his perspective a little. But it doesn’t explain the lack of production from everyone else (outside of some pretty decent play from Matthew Butler).
Ben: Talent, talent, talent, talent, talent. Tracy Rocker turned Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, Kyle Phillips, and Paul Bain into productive players last season because of his ability to coach defensive linemen. He just forgot how to coach a couple of months later? No. Tennessee has very little talent along the defensive line. The position should be the No. 1 priority in recruiting at the moment.
“Do you guys think some of the players changing positions as much as I change underwear is causing confusion and setbacks for them?” – @BuckToTheNasty1
Nathanael: No, because outside of five or six players, not many guys have been switching positions. And most of those guys — with the exception of Quavaris Crouch, Darnell Wright, and Jeremy Banks (when he was on the roster) — aren’t being counted on this season. Jerrod Means, Aaron Beasley, and Princeton Fant are the only other three I can think of who have moved positions somewhat recently, and none of those players have really seen the field.
Ben: Nice to know you change underwear quite a bit, Buck Nasty. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing with how much Jeremy Pruitt is cross-training some players because most of the guys are playing similar positions, or it’s a position they’re familiar with. At some point, you have to allow a young player to remain at one position and let them grow. Pruitt will do that once he has multiple recruiting classes on campus and doesn’t have massive holes at multiple positions.
“TN has significant 2nd half scoring problems as they are ranked 120 and 122 in 3rd and 4th Qtr scoring respectively. Is this coaching (adjustments or lack thereof), conditioning, both or something else?” – Jimmy
Nathanael: I think conditioning plays a part, but I think the largest part has been just severe lack of depth at a multitude of places. Plus, when Jarrett Guarantano was quarterback, he tended to just fall apart in the second half. Now, you could argue Brian Maurer did the same thing against Georgia, but I don’t think that was the case. I think that was more of Georgia waking up and asserting themselves in the third quarter. You can put some of it on coaching, but until Tennessee gets better overall talent and more depth, I’m not putting a whole lot on the coaches when it comes to UT’s second half drop-offs.
Ben: To me, it’s a lack of depth, talent and execution. As Pruitt has mentioned multiple times, they’re not necessarily calling different plays in the second half than the first half, the players just aren’t executing. That’s not excluding the coaches from criticism because they deserve to be criticized as well, but against Florida and Georgia, great talent eventually out-played average talent. It doesn’t help that Tennessee hasn’t been all that great at taking care of the football and forcing turnovers.
“Will the coaches have more running packages for Maurer?” – Chad
Nathanael: You know, I thought we’d see more of those against Georgia, but with how good the Bulldogs’ defense was, I think it was maybe the right call not to run Maurer more against them. Don’t make him take unnecessary hits when you need him for the rest of the season. But against Mississippi State, which isn’t near the same level of defense as Georgia, I think you might see some more RPOs or even designed runs for him. Pruitt did say earlier this week that there were a few times Maurer probably should’ve given the ball to the running back on an RPO rather than keeping it himself to pass, so maybe that’s another reason we didn’t see more this past Saturday.
Ben: They should, and I think they will. Just this week in practice, there’s been a heavy emphasis on working on the mesh-point in zone-reads. Against Georgia, the coaching staff may have wanted to protect Maurer a little bit more, but that likely won’t be the case against Mississippi State. Especially if it rains on Saturday, which there is a chance. If Maurer can have success in the run game, it would open up the offense quite a bit.
“If TN makes a bowl game, is Brian Maurer starting QB day one next season?” – @htcook1999
Nathanael: No. At least, that doesn’t guarantee he will. He very well could, but just because he leads the Vols to a bowl game this year (which, as you said, is an if, and it’s a pretty big one, too) doesn’t mean he’s the de facto starter for next year. With Harrison Bailey coming in and Kasim Hill gaining eligibility, you have to keep the QB competition open at least in the spring. Unless Maurer just lights the world on fire and finishes his season with like 20 passing touchdowns or something, I don’t see how UT doesn’t at least start spring practices with an open competition.
Ben: Yes, because in my mind, if Tennessee wins five out of its last seven games, that means Maurer is playing terrific football against some pretty good teams to mask deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. If Maurer were to play lights out down the stretch, why would you have an open competition heading into the offseason? I don’t see one.
“Between the offense and defense…who is better equipped for the future?” – Sam
Nathanael: Right now, I’d say the defense. There are more young contributors on that side of the ball who will likely be here in 2020, 2021, and beyond. You have true freshmen in Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Warren Burrell, and Roman Harrison all either playing significant roles or working themselves into bigger parts, and players like Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, and Trevon Flowers are all just in their second years at UT.
I think this is a tough question, and it’s a good one. But I’d go with the defense slightly over the offense right now.
Ben: I say the offense because of the lack of defensive linemen and defensive backs that Tennessee has in its program. Elijah Simmons is really the only defensive lineman on the roster that I believe has real potential moving forward. At defensive back, Alontae Taylor, Warren Burrell, Tyus Fields, and Jaylen McCollough, but Bryce Thompson is the only one who I have complete faith in.
On offense, each position has quite a bit of hope for the future. At quarterback, you have Maurer, Kasim Hill, and Harrison Bailey — assuming he signs. Gray is the running back of the future, along with Tee Hodge. The offensive line is full of young talent that continues to get better and better each week. At tight end, you have two young guys in Jackson Lowe and Sean Brown. Tee Martin’s wide receiver room will have Palmer, Deangelo Gibbs, and Brandon Johnson next year along with Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman.
“Is Harrison Bailey still a lock? If not, what will our record need to be in order to keep him on board?” – Nash
Nathanael: I think he’s one of the four or five players in Tennessee’s 2020 class I’m the least worried about. Cooper Mays and Jalin Hyatt are certainly in that group as well. But I do think you run the risk of Bailey jumping ship if Tennessee flat out implodes in November. Going 0-for-October wouldn’t be good at all, but if the Vols can’t win more than two games in November after failing to win anything in October, that’s when you’ll start to see recruits reevaluate things.
Ben: I wouldn’t say a lock because it’s recruiting, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up at Tennessee — unless the Vols just fall off a cliff. Which I guess is possible.
“What is your predicted records for the upcoming basketball season… overall and SEC play?” – Cole
Nathanael: I think a 20-win season overall is very doable for this team this year. They’re going to surprise some people, especially if Uros Plavsic is eligible to play. If Tennessee can just go, say, 9-5 in non-conference, they have to find a way to to 11-7 in SEC play to get to 20 wins, and I think that’s absolutely in the realm of possibility.
As for my predicted record, I’m torn between a 9-5 and 10-4 non-conference record, and I think an SEC record of 11-7 or 12-6 wouldn’t surprise me. Neither would a 10-8 SEC record, though. I’ll go right in the middle and say 11-7, and Tennessee will be right on the cusp of 20 wins.
Ben: A national championship. I kid, I kid.
Whether or not Uros Plavsic becomes eligible will determine how much success Tennessee has this season. The Vols feel good about the Arizona State transfer becoming eligible, so assuming that happens, I think this team will win 20 or more games and make the NCAA Tournament. As for SEC play, I don’t have a great feel for where they’ll finish because the league will be really good this year, but I do expect for them to finish towards the top.