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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.
“I prayed and He answered! We got Graham! Now, do you guys see him bringing any elite running backs with him, or did they all sign in the early signing period?” – @BuckToTheNasty1
Nathanael: In the 2020 class, the only big name left on the board is five-star Zach Evans, but you probably already know all about him. Getting Graham certainly helps, considering Graham was his primary recruiter at Texas A&M. But that’s about the only immediate impact Graham could have in recruiting. He’ll be someone who will really help the Vols in the 2021 and 2022 cycles, though.
Ben: Most of them have already signed or committed elsewhere. Really, the only elite running back prospect left on the board happens to be Zach Evans — who Tennessee has positioned itself with as about as well as it can. Jay Graham was Evans’ lead recruiter while at Texas A&M, a school Evans was previously considering. Graham’s addition won’t help the Vols with Evans as much as most think, but it definitely won’t hurt. With Georgia picking up a running back commitment on Thursday, it appears it’s going to come down to Tennessee, Ole Miss, and potentially Ohio State for Evans.
“Will there be a point where the staff throws in the towel and moves on from Zach Evans or do you just keep pursuing hoping he enrolls?” – @hesenij
Nathanael: The only way Tennessee throws in the towel would be if he completely cuts off contact with them or blows them off. Since that hasn’t happened (despite rumors earlier this week), I don’t see that happening for UT. The complication with Evans is that he signed an NLI with Georgia already, and since he was released from that and it’s voided, he can’t sign anywhere on National Signing Day. That means his recruitment can go all the way until like May or June. He won’t be tied to a school until he enrolls in classes for the summer.
Ben: When he signs with a different school. I gave my understanding of the situation with Evans as it currently sits in my previous answer, but Tennessee is sitting in solid position to land the five-star running back. I don’t believe there will be a moment when the Vols thrown in the towel.
“What percentage do you think we land Beckwith, Evans, and Wideman to finish this class?” – Joey
Nathanael: I’m going to remain very cautious and skeptical that Tennessee signs all three of these prospects, but if you’re UT, you have to like where you sit with all three currently. The Vols have done about all they can at this point with all three. Malachi Wideman seemed to really enjoy his visit to Knoxville, and he visited Oregon last week and is scheduled to see Ole Miss this weekend. If UT can out-sale those two and survive a last minute sales pitch from Florida State — the school he’s currently committed to — then I think they have him. As for Beckwith, I think it’s truly a coin flip between Tennessee and Florida. I’m not sure he’s made up his mind just yet. I have no clue on Evans. I think the Vols are the slight leader right now, especially with Georgia taking the commitment of four-star RB Daijun Edwards on Thursday. But as Ben said earlier, Ole Miss and Ohio State are teams to watch.
I’d say there’s about a 30-40 percent chance the Vols end up with all three.
Ben: Tennessee is trending with Dee Beckwith and Malachi Wideman. You then consider the fact that the Vols are positioned well (this doesn’t mean they’re the favorite) with Evans, and it’s hard not to give the Vols a greater than 50 percent chance. Beckwith took a visit to Florida this past weekend and isn’t set to visit anywhere this weekend — which is the final weekend before National Signing Day. Wideman visited Oregon last week, but he had a great trip to Knoxville last weekend. As of Jan. 30, I’d say Tennessee’s chances of landing all three are anywhere from 60 to 70 percent.
“Do you think any of the new Running Backs we just signed could fit in that big back role?” – @AlwaysVol
Nathanael: Both Len’Neth Whitehead and Tee Hodge perfectly fit that role for Tennessee. The incoming freshmen are both bulldozer backs, but the only question is if Whitehead will remain in the backfield or if he’ll move to linebacker at some point. He played both in high school, and he excelled at both. He’ll start out at running back, but we’ll see where he ends up.
Ben: Tee Hodge is the back coming in that Tennessee hopes fills that role. Len’Neth Whitehead could also fill that role if he doesn’t move to linebacker. Hodge is listed at 6-foot, 217 lbs. according to 247Sports, while Whitehead is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 lbs.
“What are the chances of someone other than JG starting at quarterback this year? Who do you think will be the primary back up?” – Sterling
Nathanael: I don’t think the chances are all that high of someone unseating Guarantano for Week 1 of the season, but the time UT gets into SEC play? It wouldn’t shock me one bit to see Harrison Bailey or Brian Maurer starting. Those are the only two quarterbacks I see truly pushing JG for the starting role. Unless Jimmy Holiday just really wows and is a better passer than I expect him to be, I don’t see him threatening to start. They’ll probably still use him in packages, but he won’t start. I think JT Shrout will end up transferring, and I’ve not been wowed by Kasim Hill. The primary backup will be one of Bailey or Maurer, but I think I’m leaning slightly towards Bailey there.
Ben: In regards to who is going to start game No. 1 in 2020 at quarterback, I think it’ll most definitely be Jarrett Guarantano. It’s hard for me to believe that any other quarterback will be able to overtake Guarantano during the spring, summer, or fall before the season because practice has never been JG’s problem. If Guarantano plays well in the month of September, we won’t see another quarterback start unless he gets hurt. If he struggles, I think it’ll be just a matter of time before we see Brian Maurer or Harrison Bailey. I expect for Maurer or Bailey to be the back up at the beginning of the season.
“Is there any word on potential candidates to fill Kevin Sherrer’s coaching spot?” – Justin
Nathanael: Ben suggest last week in the mailbag that Brian Niedermeyer could move over to defense and coach linebackers and Joe Osovet could be promoted to an on-field role to take Niedermeyer’s spot at tight ends coach. Unless Tracy Rocker or Chris Rumph move on from the staff, I think that’s spot on for what Pruitt will do. If you look at Niedermeyer’s track record, it’s primarily been on defense. He played tight end in college, but he was a defensive student coach at Arkansas Pine Bluff, assisted with the linebackers at Miami, was a defensive GA at Georgia under Pruitt, and he was a defensive GA at Alabama under Pruitt and helped with the linebackers. The only place he had coached on offense before coming to UT was at East Texas Baptist University, where he coached wide receivers.
Ben: I mentioned the possibility of moving Brian Niedermeyer to the defensive side of the ball and allowing Joe Osovet to move to an on-field coaching position in last week’s mailbag. Depending on if Chris Rumph leaves, I see Niedermeyer either being the inside or outside linebackers coach next season. This would open the door for Osovet to coach the tight ends. I still believe this to be the case.
“Are people overreacting to Barnes this season? You lost some of the best players the school’s ever seen. Of course you’re not as good. Give Barnes time to develop the young talent and he will be fine. Everyone calm down.” – @nposey23
Nathanael: It sounds like you answered your own question there. But seriously, I think you’re pretty accurate. I’ve seen some people freaking out over this season, but it’s usually just the same people who like to be negative about everything all the time anyway, so I haven’t given it much thought. The basketball program will be fine, and this team actually still has a shot at making the NCAA Tournament — albeit a slim one. Considering you lost about 70 percent of your overall production from last season, had your starting point guard undergo season-ending surgery in December, welcomed in a freshman point guard midway through the season, and got your seven-foot transfer cleared to play two months later than you were expecting/hoping, I’d say things have actually gone better than I would’ve expected had you told me all that was going to happen back in like September or October. The Vols’ loss to Texas A&M is inexcusable, but that was their first actual bad loss of the season. The rest of their losses have been to good/great teams. Kansas (1st), Florida State (19th), LSU (30th), Wisconsin (31st) Cincinnati (42nd), and Memphis (59th) are all in the top 60 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Georgia is 98th, so they’re in the top 100.
Ben: You’re preaching to the choir, my friend. Anybody overreacting to this season is looking at the box score after the game and not truly following along. Not only did Barnes lose four NBA players off of last year’s team, but this year’s team didn’t come together the way he anticipated. Tennessee basketball is going to be okay. It’s a transition year, and yet they still have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.