Insider Mailing: Ready for the Stretch Run Edition

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    (Photo via Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics)

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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.

    “How much do you think that Bryant’s injury affects him this week? Is he 100%, 80%?” – @WhoKnow72729456

    Nathanael: I think it will hold Kelly Bryant back like it has the last couple weeks. It held him out of the Georgia game, and he didn’t look 100 percent against Florida, either. Obviously, the Gators’ defense is better than Tennessee’s, but the Vols’ defense has been playing really well lately, especially in the second half. With Bryant not being able to scramble like he wants to, that should allow the Vols to be a little more reckless and not have to have a constant spy on Bryant. They’ll still need to be wary of his running ability, but I think that’ll still limit him. Bryant isn’t a great pocket passer, so that helps the Vols.

    Ben: I don’t know how much, but it will definitely affect him to a certain extent, simply because it has all season long. Bryant even missed the Georgia game two weeks ago. The former Clemson quarterback is at his best when he’s able to scramble and create chaos. Due to his hamstring injury, he hasn’t been able to do that this season. I don’t expect for Bryant to be 100 percent healthy all of a sudden.

    “With the season winding down, what is the 1 biggest surprise? Both positive and negative.” – Sam

    Nathanael: I think my biggest positive surprise from an individual standpoint has been the rapid improvement of Nigel Warrior throughout the season. He entered the year with a ton of questions, and he was failing to answer those questions through the first four weeks of the season. Ever since the Georgia game, though, he’s been a different player, and he looks like an NFL prospect now. As a whole, Tennessee’s complete 180-degree turnaround from a 1-4 start to going 4-1 over the last five games has been my biggest positive surprise.

    On the flip side, I’ve been really disappointed in Tennessee’s run game and the lack of usage of the running backs. I can understand not calling a ton of running plays because it’s obvious the offensive line has still struggled to run block, and the Vols’ backs have struggled at times to make the correct reads. But Tennessee’s running backs have combined for just 255 carries this season, and I’ve been especially surprised at the lack of usage out of Ty Chandler in the passing game. He has just nine catches this season, and they’ve gone for a meager 27 yards.

    Ben: The biggest positive surprise to me has been Tennessee’s turnaround. After starting the season 1-4, with losses to Georgia State and BYU, I am stunned that Tennessee is going to be playing for a bowl game. (Yes, I believe at minimum, the Vols finish the season with a win over Vanderbilt) I thought the 2019 Tennessee football team was dead going into the Georgia game and am somewhat stunned Jeremy Pruitt has been able to turn things around this year. Sure, the competition hasn’t been the greatest, but the Vols are playing pretty good football right now. I didn’t see that coming following the month of September.

    The biggest negative surprised to me this season was how Jarrett Guarantano started the season. I didn’t expect Guarantano to win the Heisman this season, but I sure as heck didn’t think he would start the year the way he did. He was flat out miserable, and that was shocking to me because he has so much more potential than what he was showing. The Guarantano that we’ve seen against Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB, and Kentucky is the Guarantano I thought we would see to start the year. Kudos to the junior for getting it turned around and battling through adversity.

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    “Seeing how Pruitt has transformed this team this year, what are the expectations over the next few years? Can we win the SEC East in the next 5 years?” – Dawson

    Nathanael: You should absolutely expect that. If Tennessee doesn’t win the SEC East at least once within the next five years, I don’t think Jeremy Pruitt is the head coach of the Vols after that period of time. I don’t think the Vols should win the East next year, but what about in 2021 or 2022? With the entire roster flipped at that point and with the development and strength coaching from this staff over that span, I think it’s very fair to expect Tennessee not only to be competing for the East, but to have at least won it once.

    Ben: Absolutely. If not, Pruitt won’t be here in five years simply because that’s plenty of time to give the Vols a chance to make it to Atlanta as the SEC East representative. I’ve said from the beginning, Pruitt deserves, at minimum, four years. Despite what the recruiting rankings said, he had very little talent when he took over. Not only did he have a lack of resources, but the Butch Jones culture was an absolute mess that wasn’t going to be cleaned up over night.

    “What’s your prediction re: the QB situation next year? Is JG still a Vol? Will Bailey be ok redshirting? Will Maurer and/ or Shrout redshirt or leave?” – @tjvol49

    Nathanael: Next year’s quarterback situation is pretty much unpredictable at the moment. That’s not me trying to cop out of a prediction; I simply don’t think even the most accomplished soothsayers can figure out what’s going to happen at QB for Tennessee between now and August of next year. Does Guarantano return? Does Harrison Bailey win the starting job as a true freshman? Do either Shrout or Maurer transfer? What about Kasim Hill? Can he steal the starting job?

    There’s a lot to sort out for next year. If Guarantano doesn’t transfer, I think he’s the starter. If he leaves UT? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Ben: I honestly don’t have a prediction at the moment. You could make a case for Brian Maurer, Harrison Bailey, Guarantano, or Kasim Hill being next year’s starting quarterback and you wouldn’t look crazy. The only thing I don’t see happening is J.T. Shrout being the starter in the season-opener. Although I thought he was gone a month ago, if I’m Tennessee, I try to get Guarantano to return. Sure, the start of the season was miserable, but he’s finally starting to settle into Jim Chaney’s offense, and its paying off. Plus, there’s no guarantee that Bailey, or even Hill, will be better options.

    “Has the GA State game officially moved to being our LA Monroe against Bama or Troy against LSU game?” – @BlazeKeylon

    Nathanael: I don’t think so at all. At least not right now. If Pruitt goes on a run and gets Tennessee to the SEC Championship Game in the next two years, then I’d say yes, it was. But right now? I don’t think so. Right now, it just looks like a disastrous game to start the season that Tennessee has been able to move on from and somehow salvage their season despite the loss. I’m not ready to say it’s “officially” the same level as Saban’s loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first year at Alabama or Ed Orgeron’s loss to Troy at LSU in his first full year as head coach.

    Ben: That’s a question we’ll know the answer to in hindsight, five years from now, if Pruitt has Tennessee rolling. It feels like it for sure, though. One thing that I do know, however, is that the loss to Georgia State was an absolute fluke. The Panthers are a good football team this year, but if the two teams play each other 10 times, Tennessee would win every single one of them.

    “How serious are we when it comes to recruiting Reggie Grimes?? I feel like if we full court pressed him he might commit? Or am I just wishful thinking?” – Kristopher 

    Nathanael: Right now, it just doesn’t feel like there’s a great deal of mutual interest between the two. I think Tennessee is torn behind the scenes about whether or not they want to take him. I personally think he’s worth the scholarship spot in the 2020 class, but I’m not a coach or a talent evaluator.

    Ben: Maybe so, but I don’t think Tennessee is as interested in the borderline five-star defensive end target as one might expect.

    “Has your expectations for the men’s basketball team risen from the preseason or are they still the same? They’re playing great basketball right now.” – @htcook1999

    Nathanael: They’ve risen some in the fact that I don’t think the Vols will be a bubble team like I did at the beginning of the year. Now, I think Tennessee definitely gets in to the NCAA Tournament, though I don’t expect a super high seed. I do have some concerns about this team’s depth holding up as the season goes along and whether or not they can peak at the right time. Getting to the tournament is one thing, but can UT actually play their best basketball in late February and March unlike last year?

    Ben: They’re about the same, but what has changed is my confidence in Tennessee can survive life without Uros Plavsic. With the way Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, and Olivier Nkamhoua are playing, it appears that the Vols’ post players just may be able to swim through the murky waters. Tennessee is playing great basketball as you mentioned. It most definitely provides a level of comfort that the Vols can absolutely make the tournament.

    “With the rest of the SEC being a dumpster fire so far this year in men’s BB, what impact might that have for TN come NCAA tourney time?” – Greg

    Nathanael: Right now, the SEC looks ripe for the taking for Tennessee because of the early season struggles of Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Alabama and others. So far, only the Vols and Auburn have really looked good to start the season. But I fully expect some of these teams to get better come February, because by then most of these teams will have settled in and figured out how their puzzle pieces fit. All those teams I mentioned, along with Georgia, Vanderbilt, and a couple others, are dealing with a lot of newness on their roster. I think a large portion of them will figure some things out, but I do think Tennessee still finishes in the top five of the conference at this rate.

    Ben: If the SEC basketball struggles continue, it’ll impact Tennessee in a positive way in the sense that the Vols road to the NCAA Tournament will be much easier. But I don’t believe the SEC will be as bad as they’ve shown to this point. Each team that is struggling right now has quite a bit of newness to their program. There’s going to be an adjustment phase because of it.

    “How do you think Kerry Blackshear Jr would’ve fit in if he went to Tennessee instead? Seeing how bad the Gators basketball squad looks so far, should he have gone to Tennessee instead?” – Steve

    Nathanael: I think he absolutely should’ve gone to UT instead. His decision to go to Florida always struck me as odd. I know the Gators have talent on their roster, so I can understand it from that perspective. But how did he think Mike White’s offense would benefit him? The Gators’ offense has gotten worse and worse every year under White after his second season. They went from scoring 77.9 points a game and averaging 69 possessions a game in his second season to 75.8 points and 67.1 possessions in his third year and then to 67.8 points and 62.9 possessions last year. This year, they’re averaging 62.5 points and 65.1 possessions. Maybe he thought all that talent would change things, but it clearly hasn’t.

    At Tennessee, the offense would’ve run through him and the Vols’ senior duo in the backcourt. He’s personally having a decent year, averaging 14.5 points and 11 rebounds (before Thursday’s game against St. Joseph’s when he was ejected early), but the Florida team isn’t right now. That can obviously change, but it doesn’t look great.

    Ben: He would have fit in perfectly, which is why he told Tennessee players that he was going to come to Knoxville and play his final season of college basketball in Thompson-Boling. But he got caught up in the Gators hype, and so far, it appears to have been the wrong decision. Blackshear would probably be the focal point of the Vols offense right now. I believe he, Lamonte Turner, and Jordan Bowden would have played well together.