Insider Mailing: A Top 10 Class Edition

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Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

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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 guys see any day 1 starters in this recruiting class?” – @BuckToTheNasty1

Nathanael: I do, but not as many as you saw in the 2019 class. Looking back at last year’s class, I thought Tennessee would have around five starters who were newcomers, and that ended up being the case. Actually, six of UT’s newcomers in the 2019 class started throughout the season, and Eric Gray was the Vols’ main running back in the last two games.

For the 2020 class, I wouldn’t be surprised if Keshawn Lawrence is a Day 1 starter, and maybe Harrison Bailey unseats Jarrett Guarantano at QB to start Week 1. But other than those two, I think the rest of Tennessee’s incoming freshmen won’t be starters at the beginning of the season, and that’s not a knock on the quality of the recruits; it’s a testament to where UT’s roster is now. Aside from a couple positions, the Vols don’t need instant impact freshmen to come in for the 2020 season and start right away. This class is full of talented players, but I don’t see many of them starting as true freshmen. Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph are also two to keep an eye on.

Ben: Does All-American long-snapper Will Albright count? There are guys that could start from day one, but I don’t know that we’ll see many, if any at all, simply because Tennessee doesn’t need freshmen to come in and start right away. Harrison Bailey, Zach Evans (if he signs), Jalin Hyatt, Tyler Baron, Morven Joseph, and Keshawn Lawerence could potentially start day one, but I don’t see it happening as of today. Baron is the one I would put the most money on to land a starting spot for game No. 1.

“Who is the most underrated signee?” – Jamie

Nathanael: Hands down I think it’s Doneiko Slaughter. He’s a four-star on Rivals, but he’s barely inside the top-500 prospects on 247Sports, and I think he’s easily a four-star talent who can fit perfectly into Jeremy Pruitt’s defense. I really like how he plays, how he moves, and and he tackles. He looks like the perfect STAR/nickel player right now for UT.

I’d also say that even though he got a pretty good bump at the end of the 2020 cycle, I think Jalin Hyatt is still underrated. I truly think he’s an elite talent at wide receiver.

Ben: Dominic Bailey or Doneiko Slaughter. Bailey is ranked as a four-star, but I feel as if he is overlooked or not talked about enough because he committed to the Vols so early. He’s athletic, can play on either side of the line, and is strong. With the correct development, he’ll be a good player. As is the case with Slaughter. The Georgia native is a freak of an athlete and will out-play his recruiting rank.

“If Wideman plays basketball too, does the basketball team have to count him towards one of their scholarships, also?” – Robert

Ben: No. Malachi Wideman and Dee Beckwith both signed football scholarships. They’ll be viewed as walk-ons for the basketball team.

“Should we be more excited about Wideman on the grass or hardwood? Seems to me it would be the hardwood.” – Garrison 

Nathanael: I’d go with his talent on the football field over what he does on the basketball court. Wideman is one of the most unique and gifted athletes I’ve seen since I really started covering recruiting for the Vols back in 2015, but I think what he can do in football is more valuable than what he can do in basketball. I know most of Wideman’s hoop highlights show him dunking, but I’ve seen others where his defense is on display, and he has a nice compact stroke on his jump shot from the outside. But his ability to leap like 40 inches in the air and come down with jump balls will make him very dangerous in the passing game, and that kind of ability coupled with his decent speed and good awareness could earn him a lot of money in the NFL.

Ben: On the grass. Wideman has the potential to be a stud in either sport, but his upside is through the roof on the football field. With basketball, his athleticism shows off through his highlight tape with the dunks he throws down and some of the passes he’s made. But dunking the basketball won’t single-handedly get you drafted. The way Wideman goes up over defenders and catches touchdowns will. Wideman could develop into a great all-around basketball player, but I don’t see him doing so if he is committed to playing both sports.

“I do believe our season this year will hinge on QB play.. do you guys believe that?” – Stevie

Nathanael: You’re spot on, Stevie. Tennessee has a solid core on both offense and defense, and they’re a good quarterback away from really being able to challenge in the SEC East. Whether that’s Harrison Bailey coming in and starting, Jarrett Gurantano rising to the occasion and playing at a higher level, Brian Maurer making a big leap and taking over, or someone else running the offense, Tennessee’s 2020 season will hinge on how the quarterback (or quarterbacks) play. With average QB play, I think UT is a 7-8 win team. With above average play, they could grab a ninth win. With great QB play? I honestly think a 10-win season is possible. That’s not what I’m predicting at the moment, but I think that’s the ceiling if UT gets a high level of production out of their quarterback position.

Ben: Absolutely agree. Tennessee has the chance to win the SEC East — if it receives good quarterback play. The Vols have one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, playmakers at wide receiver, and running backs who can produce. It doesn’t matter if Jarrett Guarantano, Harrison Bailey, or Brian Maurer is the quarterback; if Tennessee receives good quarterback play, the Vols will generate some noise in the SEC.

“How soon will Cade Mays be playing?” – @WildRabbit 

Nathanael: He’ll be able to practice with the team in the spring, but as far as when will we know if he’s cleared to play for the 2020 season? You know better than to ask that question this early in the process! The NCAA does whatever it wants, and it’s taken its sweet time with other UT transfers. I think the Mays family getting a lawyer involved will speed things along, though, so I don’t anticipate waiting till fall camp like Tennessee had to do with Aubrey Solomon.

Ben: As soon as the NCAA decides to make a decision. It seems as if Tennessee feels good about the potential of him playing this season, but it’s all in the NCAA’s hands at this point.

“I think it’s being shown right now that Coach Pruitt has more upside that the head coach at UGA. He has hit a plateau. What do you think?” – Walt

Nathanael: I think it’s still a little early to be making those types of judgments, at least about Pruitt. I was impressed with how he and the team bounced back last season and closed out the year, and I think Pruitt has made upgrades to his coaching staff every offseason thus far. I also like what he and his staff have been able to do in recruiting and in the transfer market. But I want to see what he does in 2020 before I say if he has more upside than Kirby Smart. I’m not a big believer in Smart by any means, and I think he’s a bit overrated by the national media. But he’s won the SEC East three years in a row, won the whole conference once, and gotten UGA to the national title game. Could/should he have done more with the talent he has? That’s definitely debatable, and I’d argue that yes, he should’ve. But I don’t think I can definitively say Pruitt has more upside than Smart right now.

Ben: I agree. Jeremy Pruitt has done more to show that he can be a better long-term head coach with the way he’s recruiting at Tennessee, assembling a staff, how he’s a players coach, and that he’s genuine. Kirby Smart walked into a 100x better situation at Georgia, and you have to give him credit for winning an SEC Championship and making it to the national title game, but Pruitt would already have a National Championship under his belt if he were in Athens as the head coach.

“Expectations for Vol Baseball this year?” – @Jefferyg37354

Nathanael: I expect them to get back to the NCAA Tournament again this season, and I expect to see them be competitive in the SEC. The conference is, once again, just absolutely stacked with talented teams. I thought the Vols were a really good team last season, and they still finished slightly below .500 in SEC play because of how good and deep the conference is. That team almost advanced to a Super Regional. I think this team, if they stay healthy, can make it at least as far as last year’s team, and they have the potential to break through to a Super Regional.

Ben: Tennessee baseball is going to be better than it was last year, but it’s so hard to gauge where they’ll finish in the SEC because the conference is so dominant. Vanderbilt is going to be great once again, Florida is going to bounce back after a tough 2019 season, and Georgia has elite talent on its pitching staff. Those three are likely the best teams in the SEC East, leaving Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri. The Vols will prove to be better than those three, which will put them in the middle of the pack of the East, which by recent Tennessee baseball expectations, is exceeding expectations.

At the end of the day, I’ll judge whether Tennessee had a successful season by whether or not they make the NCAA Tournament, rather than where they finish in the SEC for the sole reason that they’re all going to beat up on each other. This team has the potential to be really good behind the pitching staff, so my expectation is to make the NCAA Tournament and make some noise.