Insider Mailing: Early Preseason Hype Edition

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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 do we make of ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25 with UT at #19? Too much hype??” – Hal

Nathanael: I’m going to say “pump the brakes” a little here. I do think Tennessee has the potential to be a top 25 team in 2020, but unless they get good-to-great quarterback play, they likely aren’t going better than 8-4 in the regular season. It would take a bowl victory and a 9-4 record at the end of the year for them to sneak into the top 20 at that point, so maybe it is justified, but I’m holding off on crowning this team with a lot of offseason hype just yet. I do like the coaching moves Jeremy Pruitt made this offseason, and the roster has gotten even more talented. But replacing roughly two-thirds of your production in the receiving department, your leading sacker (Darrell Taylor), your leading tackler (Daniel Bituli), and your leading interceptor (Nigel Warrior) won’t be easy. The Vols return a wealth of experience in the trenches on both sides of the ball and have a fairly experienced and talented secondary, but I want to see who steps up in the linebacking room and at wide receiver. Plus, UT needs to figure out the QB position.

Ben: On one hand, I believe that’s a fair ranking for the Vols. On the other hand, I’m not paying much attention to it because this isn’t the first time a ranking on ESPN has favored he Vols. And we all know how the last couple of seasons have gone. ESPN’s ranking is the first of many where Tennessee will be ranked. The Vols return several players who played key roles last season, they return their starting quarterback, they finished their season on a high note, and they finished with a strong recruiting class. All of those factors tend to be what media members look at when ranking teams over the offseason.

“Is Trey Smith our new emperor? Should we bow at his big orange throne and ask for favor? Has he finally dethroned our beloved Peyton?” – @BuckToTheNasty1

Nathanael: No, the only way anyone could dethrone Peyton would be if a QB leads Tennessee to a national title and then comes back for his senior season. Or, if that QB wins the SEC as a junior then comes back as a senior and wins a national title. Otherwise, Peyton will always be atop that mountain. But Trey Smith is an outstanding human being as well as an outstanding football player, and he fits into that Grant Williams mold where Vol fans can be proud of what he does both as a player and as a student/representative of the university. He’s an All-American lineman and an All-American human.

Ben: Trey Smith has has not surpassed Peyton Manning. Nobody will unless it’s a quarterback who leads Tennessee to a National Championship or two. Tee Martin won a championship and doesn’t get anywhere near the love Manning does. But we should still bow at the feet of Smith, who when it’s all said and done, represented the University of Tennessee and the great state of Tennessee better than any player the Vols have ever seen. Especially when you take into consideration is impact off the football field as well.

“Do you think Gray starts out as feature back? Or you think Pruitt will go back by committee with Jordan/Gray/Chandler again?” – Danny

Nathanael: I think you’ll still see more of a committee approach, especially if Tennessee ends up landing five-star Zach Evans (which is definitely not a guarantee). Even if UT doesn’t get Evans, I still think you’ll see Gray and Chandler more or less split time at the beginning of the year. Maybe one of them will turn into more of a feature back, but I do think you’ll see them getting a fairly even split to start out. I’m not so sure Tim Jordan is still a Vol by the time the season starts, though.

Ben: Yes, because Eric Gray is the best all-around running back the Vols have. Landing Zach Evans might change that, but assuming Evans doesn’t choose Tennessee, Gray will ride his momentum of last season’s strong finish. But even if Gray begins the season as the feature back, Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan will have plenty of opportunities to play. Tennessee will feed the hot hand like it did last year, but I have a feeling Gray will have a big season.

“Who’s a player flying under the radar that more fans should pay attention to?” – @volunteer_27

Nathanael: I feel like he never gets enough attention, especially with the way he closed out his 2019 season, but I’m expecting some big things from Shawn Shamburger. He was valuable as the Vols’ nickel/STAR defensive back last year, but he rarely gets talked about when you hear people talk about the secondary. Usually, it’s Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, Jaylen McCollough, Trevon Flowers, and Theo Jackson who get most of the talk. Shamburger was an effective blitzer for UT last season, and I think his role is only going to grow. I really like his potential with Pruitt and Ansley coaching him.

Ben: I’m assuming we’re talking about football, so I’ll say Deangelo Gibbs. The Georgia transfer had a terrific redshirt season transitioning to the wide receiver position. Gibbs consistently made plays in practice on the scout team and is on the verge of a really good season. Austin Pope is another name to watch. Pope should be the team’s starting tight end this season. He was a very productive blocking tight end for the Vols last season and has the ability to be a threat in the passing game.

“How much distance is there between our tenth ranked class and the top 1-2 classes?” – Jeremy

Nathanael: Just from a pure talent and athleticism standpoint, quite a bit. There isn’t a ton of difference between the classes in that 8-15 range; really, only one or two prospects make a difference there. But when you look at the top two or three classes, they’re in a league of their own.

On 247Sports, Tennessee’s average ranking of their 23 signees (which includes long snapper Will Albright, which really brings down the average) is 89.92. Clemson and Alabama both have average ratings over 93, and Georgia, the No. 1 class on 247Sports, has an average ranking of 92.96. LSU, the fourth-ranked class, has an average rating of 92.84. For comparison, the Vols only trail seventh-place Auburn by less than a full point, as the Tigers’ seventh-ranked class has an average of 90.89 per recruit.

Ben: In terms of athleticism, there is quite a bit of difference. Just about every top-ranked recruit is rated highly because of what their athleticism allows them to do while at camps and combines. These recruits have elite athleticism. and as a result, are ranked highly because they are viewed as having a ton of potential. Tennessee lacks the elite athleticism that a top-ranked class has, but the Vols have great football players coming in. Only time will tell just how big of a difference there is in the recruiting classes.

“In the 2021 class are there any specific positions that will be a big focus for the staff?” – Stevie

Nathanael: I think the biggest positions of focus in this cycle will be the defensive line, pass rusher, kicker, and finding an elite running back, especially if UT doesn’t land Zach Evans. The Vols will be losing several defensive linemen after the 2020 season, so signing some more depth pieces will be key. Getting an elite pass rusher is an absolute must this cycle, in my opinion. At running back, UT will be losing three RBs to graduation after this season, and Eric Gray will be a junior for 2021. Tennessee needs to find someone who is a difference-maker there. At kicker, Brent Cimaglia graduates after this season, so you need his replacement, too.

Ben: I don’t believe so, but if there is a position I would highlight it would be pass-rushers — whether that be at the outside linebacker or defensive end position. Tennessee needs a quarterback every single season, and the Vols will need a kicker in this year’s class with Brent Cimaglia departing following the season. Jeremy Pruitt has reached the point to where he is recruiting in order to continue to recruit championship depth.

“What are the odds the Vols basketball team loses every game left this season?” – @tjvol49

Nathanael: Man, rough question. But honestly, I’d say those odds are higher than some would want to admit, probably. All five of Tennessee’s remaining regular season games are against teams ranked inside the top 50 of the Ken Pomeroy rankings, and UT is just 1-7 against teams currently in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings. I’d still be pretty surprised if UT went 0-5 to close out the regular season, but it’s certainly possible. To me, wins against Florida and Arkansas seem the most likely, and it’s not impossible to think UT can split their two-game series with Auburn.

Ben: Slim. I would be stunned if Tennessee lost its last five games to the season. The Vols will win at least one of their games to finish the season which consists of a trip to Auburn, a trip to Arkansas, back home against Florida, a trip to Kentucky, and back home for the season-finale against Auburn.

“Thoughts on the baseball team and expectations for this season? Love what Coach V is doing so far!” – @The_Klassens

Ben: My expectation is to make the NCAA Tournament. This baseball team is good enough to make some noise in conference play, though I’ve tempered my expectations a tad following the news that key junior college pitcher Jason Rackers will redshirt this season due to injury. Rackers was expected to play a key role this season, but the Vols still have the ability and depth to make up for his loss.

This weekend’s participation in the Round Rock Classic will be a good early season gauge of where the Vols are as a team before SEC play begins. Tennessee plays No. 6 Texas Tech on Friday, Houston on Saturday, and No. 25 Stanford on Sunday.