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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.
“What happened with Jay Hardy? Did the staff drop the ball, or did he basically mislead the entire staff?” – @SirPentious
Nathanael: From what I’ve heard, it sounds like a combination of both, but maybe more of the latter of the two. It sounds like from what we’ve been told here at RTI that Hardy had better relationships with Auburn’s coaches than Tennessee’s. But at the same time, there was a reason why all the crystal ball predictions for Hardy were to the Vols. The Auburn pick blindsided more than just fans and media; it blindsided a lot of people involved with UT’s football program, too.
Ben: Auburn did what Auburn tends to do — swooped in out of nowhere. Hardy was seen by folks in Chattanooga nearly always wearing Tennessee gear, and he had visited Tennessee several times. He had visited Auburn once. Connect the dots as you will.
“So does the Hardy commit to Auburn come with repercussions such as Pruitt reevaluating his staff on recruiting because this is a big punch to the face when the kid had only been to Auburn 3 times compared to the multiple times he has been to Tennessee. And is he a flip candidate?” – @TWA10672793
Nathanael: It absolutely does. I think there were already going to be changes this offseason, and I’ve said as much for months. But this, to me, only confirms it. I think there might be three or four changes this offseason, but not all of them will be Tennessee deciding to move on. A couple of UT’s coaches could be prime targets for other schools as well.\
As for your second part of the question: I do think Hardy is a flip candidate, but it’s going to take Tennessee adjusting a few things. I think moving someone else over to be his primary recruiter (it was Kevin Sherrer) is a must, and probably visiting him on the recruiting trail more is a must, too.
Ben: That was already going to be the case even had Hardy picked Tennessee. Jeremy Pruitt brought on several coaches for their recruiting prowess at previous schools, and those coaches haven’t done squat on the recruiting trail since. If the Vols didn’t have Pruitt or Brian Niedermeyer, Tennessee would be lost in recruiting. Changes are coming at the end of the season.
“What are the chances of Tyler Baron going to Ohio St. and Omari Thomas going to Ole Miss now?” – Bradley
Nathanael: I understand anyone being concerned about either of those two. If Baron has been such a Tennessee lean and with his father on staff at UT, why has he not committed yet? I understand wanting to enjoy the recruiting process, but it seems like it’s gone beyond just that.
At this point, I don’t think Ohio State is the biggest contender for Baron outside of Tennessee, though. I think Kentucky is the team you have to watch out for more with him. I do ultimately still think he commits to the Vols, but I feel less confident in that. As for Thomas, the Vols have picked up a lot of momentum with him, but I’d watch out for Ole Miss for sure.
Ben: I would say the chances of Tyler Baron going to Ohio State are very slim. Though I felt the same with Hardy, I would be surprised if Baron didn’t end up at Tennessee. As for Thomas, I think Tennessee would be a slight favorite as of today, but Ole Miss is absolutely a factor.
“So at what point should we be concerned about the DL recruiting this year?” – Evan
Nathanael: I think it’s fair to already be a little concerned about it, but there’s still plenty of hope for this year’s defensive line class to turn out just fine. Like I said above, Hardy is still a flip candidate if Tennessee plays their cards right, and Baron is still very much a possibility. You also have Octavious Oxendine still available and very much high on the Vols, and Omari Thomas can play either defensive or offensive line and is trending towards Tennessee as of now. Don’t forget that the Vols have four-star defensive tackle Dominic Bailey still currently committed to them in the 2020 class, too. He gets overlooked for whatever reason, but he’s a really good prospect.
All of that doesn’t wash away the fact that Tennessee has struck out on some of their other top defensive line targets in both the 2019 and 2020 classes, though. Thus why I said it makes sense to be concerned.
Ben: You should already be concerned. Recruiting the defensive line hasn’t been a success to this point in the Pruitt tenure. Last year’s defensive line haul hasn’t done much on the field, and although stars aren’t everything, this year’s group doesn’t necessarily have the elite recruits Tennessee needs. Heading into this recruiting cycle, Tennessee needed a defensive line haul similar to last cycle’s offensive line haul. So far, the Vols are a long ways away.
“I know the 2 losses at beginning of season had damaged recruiting but is there any hope for a top 20 class?” – Scott
Nathanael: Absolutely. I’d be pretty shocked if Tennessee doesn’t end up with a top 20 class, honestly. That’s, like, the low-tier expectations I have for this class. The Vols currently have the No. 20 class on 247Sports as it is, and that’s before some of their current commits get another rating boost (because some definitely will) and before UT adds some more commits (right now they’re at just 18 in the class). The chances of Tennessee adding prospects such as Darnell Washington, Noah Sewell, Tyler Baron, Omari Thomas, and others varies from recruit to recruit, but those are some recruits who would add a significant boost to the class.
Ben: Yes, there is hope. Tennessee is still after some highly-touted players such as Darnell Washington, Tyler Baron, and Omari Thomas. If the Vols land those three, they’ll absolutely be a top-20 class.
“How worried should the QBs that are here now be about looking for a new home once Harrison gets here?” – Jason
Nathanael: I don’t know that I’d be all that worried if I were a quarterback on UT’s roster. I know Harrison Bailey is being touted as the savior of Tennessee’s quarterback room, but I don’t know that a true freshman Bailey will be able to necessarily beat out what the Vols will return next year at the position. Now, I still the odds are slightly more in favor of Bailey being the starter, but having a sophomore Brian Maurer, a third-year JT Shrout, an eligible Kasim Hill, and potentially another transfer on the roster certainly makes things very interesting.
Ben: They should be worried, but not to the point to where they shouldn’t stay and fight for a job. Some close to Bailey believe he’s going to be a really good quarterback at the college level, but he needs time to adjust and settle in. It’s not a lock that he’ll be the starter in the season-opener next year like some think.
“What are the chances that the Vols’ appeal for Uros is successful and he’s allowed to play this season? If the appeal is denied do you still view the Vols an NCAA tournament team?” – Jeffrey
Nathanael: I think the chances are extremely slim. I believe Barnes and Fulmer will fight tooth and nail for Plavsic, but for whatever reason, the NCAA just seems to have dug their heels in on this one. They already denied him and UT twice. Unless there’s been some sort of new information that’s come out since the last denial, I can’t imagine they’ll change their minds on the third time. Not unless Plavsic and UT get a lawyer or something.
Yes, I do still view the Vols as an NCAA Tournament team. I said as much in my season prediction that you can view here. I think they sneak in, but I think they do.
Ben: I would be stunned if the NCAA overturned their decision. They’ve essentially turned the Vols and Plavsic down twice. Why would they all of a sudden overturn the decision? It’s just a really unfortunate situation in which the NCAA simply got wrong.
I believe the Plavsic is the difference in Tennessee making and missing the NCAA Tournament. Plavsic was bound for a really solid season on both ends of the floor, and in his absence, the Vols lack a ton of size and athleticism in the post.
“Who will be the inside scoring presence Tennessee needs in the post? Or will this season live or die on guard play & scoring?” – @OrangeCrush4L
Nathanael: I think John Fulkerson will have a much bigger role in the offense, and I think he’ll do okay with that new responsibility. Barnes has always really liked Fulkerson, and what I saw from him in the exhibition and season opener proved to me he is capable of shouldering more of the load.
With that being said, I think we’ll see Olivier Nkamhoua factor in significantly to the post play of Tennessee eventually. Even if that’s not quite as much this year, I think he’ll make an impact. I really, really like his game. Like a lot. I think the Vols got a steal with him. I also think Yves Pons will be a solid contributor from the undersized four role he’s started out in this season.
Ben: It’ll be John Fulkerson to start the year. By the time the season ends, though, we’ll be talking about Olivier Nkamhoua. The true freshman has drawn comparisons to Grant Williams when Williams stepped foot on campus. He’s athletic, can score, and is a defender. As Rick Barnes is on record saying, he just needs time.
Yves Pons will also factor in. Pons is playing a more natural position now — the four — and looks more comfortable on offense so far. Everybody will have to chip in if Tennessee will be successful in the post this season.
“Do you think Pons improvement/success on offense is due to his work in the offseason or him having more of a role this year?” – @htcook1999
Nathanael: I think it’s a bit of both. Pons put in a ton of work this offseason, but more than anything, I think moving him more into the post rather than having him play out on the perimeter has made him much more comfortable. Pons was a great defender last year, and that’s why he still played minutes even after his offense just disappeared. This year, he’s smaller at the four than you’d like, but he’s not exactly Armani Moore playing the four (or five) either. He’s a legit 6-foot-6, can soar a mile in the air, and the dude is chiseled out of stone. Unless Tennessee is playing a team with two post players at 6-foot-10 and above, he should be able to match up just fine with whoever is at the four.
Ben: Kind of answered this above, but yes. Pons looks a trillion times more comfortable on offense this season, and it’s because he’s playing around the rim more this season. He’s also really worked on his shot, taking over 300 threes a day over the offseason, and you can tell. Pons is more than capable of averaging around 10.0 points per game, 7.0 rebounds, and about a block a game. Those numbers would be huge for this basketball team.
“Will Vols and/or Lady Vols bball win 25 games this year?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: I don’t think either will, but I’d be more willing to bank on the Lady Vols doing it than the men’s team if you were going to make me pick. Tennessee’s non-conference schedule is really brutal for this year’s team and the talent they lost from last year, and the SEC is as tough and deep as its ever been. The same can be said for the Lady Vols, but I think they might have a slightly easier path to 25 wins than the men. But I’m not betting on either getting there this season.
Ben: No. The Lady Vols don’t have enough talent, especially in the post. Everyone points out Holly Warlick’s coaching flaws, but not enough point out how terrible she was at piecing a roster together towards the end of her tenure. It was worse than her in-game coaching. As a result, Kellie Harper doesn’t have a ton to work with this season.
As for the men’s team, I believe their post play keeps them from reaching 25 wins. Plus, the SEC is going to be very tough once again this season.