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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.
“Boy I love gambling. That means I play percentages. What’s the percentage of landing Evans?” – @BuckToTheNasty1
Nathanael: Right now, I wouldn’t tell you to bet on it happening, but the odds of Zachary Evans coming to Tennessee are much higher than they were at the beginning of the week. Since then, Brian Niedermeyer has visited him, and now he’s slated to come visit the Vols on an official visit this weekend. This weekend’s visit will be huge for Tennessee. Right now, Georgia — the team he originally signed with but then asked to be released from his NLI — looks like they could be reemerging as the favorite. So many teams have tried to get involved with him, such as Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Florida, and Florida State. But right now, I think UGA and UT might be the top two teams, though literally anything can change with Evans at any given moment.
Ben: Very tough question because Tennessee has a chance to land the five-star running back out of Houston, Texas, but it’s unclear just how good of a chance it has. The Vols have hosted Zach Evans on an unofficial visit before, and it didn’t necessarily do them any favors. Tennessee didn’t necessarily do anything wrong on the visit. Simply put, it was on a Sunday with few people on campus.
But now Evans returns to campus for an official visit following a great visit from Brian Niedermeyer. Tennessee didn’t want the news to get out that Evans was going to take an OV to Knoxville this weekend, which tells me that it feels good about its chances. LSU, Georgia, and Texas A&M remain in the picture, but I’d say as of today, UT has just as good of a chance as any school if the visit goes well this weekend.
“How many spots do we have left? 2-3?” – Stevie
Nathanael: They likely only have room for three more unless they find another way to get creative with the numbers beyond just counting either Cade Mays or Velus Jones Jr. ahead to the 2021 class. The ideal finish for the Vols would be landing Zach Evans, Dee Beckwith, and a wide receiver.
Ben: Three at max. If the Vols do sign three more players, they’ll likely count one of the grad transfers to next year’s cycle in order to make room. Just depends on who they want to bring in.
“Are there must-have positions of need in the 2021 cycle? If so, where?” – Greg
Nathanael: I think the biggest areas of need will be finding at least one offensive tackle, a few wide receivers, a cornerback, and a kicker. Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris will be juniors in 2021, and ideally you’d think they both could go pro after their third seasons, so finding a replacement for them for 2022 would be ideal. The Vols need to keep stockpiling that receiver group, especially since they missed on some of the most elite talent in that group in the 2020 cycle. Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway aren’t slouches, but they also aren’t a Rakim Jarrett, either. Getting a cornerback or two to potentially replace Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson is a good way to to go, too, and Brent Cimaglia is a senior this upcoming season, so landing a kicker is a must. I also think getting a premier edge rusher would be nice to see.
Ben: In my opinion, no. Tennessee’s reached the point in recruiting where it’s now looking to build championship depth. Jeremy Pruitt has assembled three recruiting classes, so the fourth one is about building depth. Now it’s more about finding particular skill-sets for each position that are missing from the current team. Tennessee needs running backs that are going to make defenders miss, and it needs to continue to add speed at receiver, as well as add a tight end that can do it all. Both lines of scrimmage still need to add depth, and more pass rushers are needed. Tennessee will also be looking for a kicker in this recruiting cycle.
“If Harrison Bailey were to win out at QB do you think our offense looks any different? Do you think our season would be better than if JG started? Would he be the best true freshman to ever start at UT?” – Cole
Nathanael: To me, the quarterback room is the one area that will either hold the Vols back from realizing their potential or help push them to that next step in 2020. I think the offense would look different with Bailey at the helm, yes. How much? I’m not sure. Jim Chaney does a good job of molding his offense to fit the strengths of his players, though. In my opinion, either Bailey starts as a true freshman or his presence pushes Guarantano or Brian Maurer enough to where they take that next step themselves.
Ben: I don’t know because I haven’t seen him throw a single pass at Tennessee. I need to see him in the spring before I answer those questions.
“Do u think Jay Graham will be the new RB coach?” @coskramervol
Nathanael: My gut is telling me “no” on this one for some reason. I think it would be great to bring Graham back to Knoxville, but I think the Vols end up bringing in Montario Hardesty — another former Vol running back — or promoting Joe Osovet to an on-field coach. I truly don’t think Tennessee is done with coaching changes this offseason, so you might see Pruitt dish out more money to add someone on defense if a move is made there rather than doling out all the cash it will take to snag Graham.
Ben: If I had to guess, yes. He’s the No. 1 option as this point, but Montario Hardesty and Joe Osovet are also being considered. Jay Graham is the leader in the clubhouse, however. If it won’t be Graham, I think it’ll be Hardesty. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw Brian Niedermeyer move to the defensive side of the ball, opening up a position for Osovet to coach a position — tight ends in this situation. Whether or not Graham comes to Tennessee will be determined by how much money Jeremy Pruitt has to spend.
“What are realistic expectations for Vols football record next season?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: I think a fair, realistic expectation for 2020 is to go 8-4 and to compete for the SEC East or at least give Georgia and Florida a run for their money. I definitely think a 9-3 record is obtainable, but beating one of Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, or Alabama isn’t going to be easy at all. Plus, I think people are overlooking Kentucky, and I think they’ll be a tough out next season, too.
Ben: To finish in the top three in the SEC East and be playing for a chance to make it to Atlanta late in the season. If Tennessee receives good quarterback play this season, the Vols can absolutely make it to Atlanta. But it’s unfair to set Atlanta as the expectation in my opinion for year three based of what Jeremy Pruitt took over when he arrived. This team will still lack championship-caliber depth at some positions.
“Rick Barnes has been good at the development of players at Tennessee with Yves Pons being the player to take a big step this year. Who is the next guy that needs/do you see being developed to the point of making an impact?” – Brian
Nathanael: I think the next guy I’m looking to see take a step in the future (not necessarily this year, probably) is Olivier Nkamhoua. I really like the skill set he has, and he finally looked comfortable and not like a timid freshman in the Vols’ win over Ole Miss. Was that just a one-off game for him, or can he continue to play with confidence this season? Moving forward for him, I think he has the makeup to be a strong post presence for the Vols in the future. My other choice would be Santiago Vescovi. Barnes does well coaching up point guards, and Vescovi has a ton of natural talent. He just needs to get acclimated to the college game.
Ben: Am I allowed to say all three freshmen not named Josiah-Jordan James? James will develop into an NBA Draft pick, but it’s the other freshmen who I believe are going to be good players for the Vols. I don’t know how good they’ll be, but I’m confident in saying Drew Pember, Davonte Gaines, and Olivier Nkamhoua will be key players by the time their careers end.
Pember simply makes things happens when he enters the game and has a pretty shooting stroke. Gaines is a pit bull on the court who plays tough defense and has the makeup of a nice offensive game. As for Nkamhoua, he’s drawn comparisons to Grant Williams from Rick Barnes. Once he puts it all together, he’s going to be very good.
“Looks like Coach Harper has the Lady Vols moving in the right direction. They look like a completely different team to me. Thoughts on the job she’s doing thus far?” – @The_Klassens
Ben: I have been very impressed with the job Kellie Harper has done. As crazy as it sounds, the Lady Vols program was in as bad of a place when Holly Warlick resigned as the football program was when Butch Jones was fired. The culture was pathetic, and the talent wasn’t where many thought it was.
Harper has completely changed the culture in less than a year. The players genuinely like each other, and they play hard for their coach regardless of the score. I’ve also been impressed with Harper’s coaching ability. Despite lacking talent and depth, the Lady Vols have drastically improved this season. They play great defense, are one of the best teams in the country at rebounding, and their offensive system generates opportunities.
The next step for Harper is overcoming how much Warlick set the Lady Vols back in recruiting the last couple of years. Harper was playing from behind in the 2019 and 2020 recruiting cycles. She still signed good prospects, but she was unable to sign the elite prospects that will help win a championship. That’s what she needs to be working towards in the 2021 class. I believe she’ll be able to recruit at an elite level. Harper has the personality that players love to play for.