Insider Mailing: The Madness of March 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.

“For the love of all that is holy, please start Bailey. Will there be growing pains? Sure. But I would rather him learn it now instead of sitting for a year behind JG. What are the odds of a miracle happening and Bailey starting?” – @nposey23

Nathanael: I think the odds of Bailey beginning the 2020 season as the starter are pretty low. Unless Bailey just comes in and absolutely balls out in the spring, summer, and fall, I don’t see Guarantano losing his starting job to him. While Guarantano isn’t the surefire starter like he was a year ago, it’s still his job to lose. Unless Guarantano loses it by practicing poorly, I don’t think Bailey will win the job before the season starts. I only see Bailey starting if Guarantano plays poorly to start the season.

Ben: I’m of the belief that Jarrett Guarantano will be the starter for the first two weeks of the season, and how he performs against Oklahoma and Florida will determine the direction of the quarterback room for the remainder of the season. I understand fans want to see someone other than No. 2 behind center, but I don’t believe a fifth-year senior will lose his job during the offseason to a true freshman. To me, it’ll take struggling in a game for him to lose his job.

“What’s the biggest question mark headed into spring practice?” – Evan

Nathanael: Take your pick here, Evan. The Vols have a lot of questions to answer in a very important spring for the team and Jeremy Pruitt. Can someone unseat Guarantano at quarterback? Who steps up at receiver now that Jennings and Callaway are gone? Can the Vols find a true playmaker at tight end? Who will be Tennessee’s top pass rusher? Does J.J. Peterson finally step up?

For me, aside from the quarterback battle, I’m most curious to see what happens with the Vols’ linebacker group. Does Roman Harrison have a strong spring and put his name into the mix for the main pass rusher role? Who steps up beside Henry To’o To’o as the Vols’ other inside linebacker? It’s now or never for Peterson, especially with Quavaris Crouch out for the spring.

Ben: Quarterback is the obvious answer just because of how important the position is. To provide a different answer for the sake of the question, the tight end position and the linebacker position are the biggest question marks to me. At tight end, there just isn’t a ton of options at the moment. It’s Austin Pope and then a bunch of guys that you hope will take the next step. At linebacker, who steps up and replaces Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor?  Henry To’o To’o will replace Bituli, but who steps up and plays the role that To’o To’o played last season is the big question.

“Jabril Cox. Hearing anything other than coaches following him on twitter? Would be a huge get.” – @coskramervol

Nathanael: According to Max Olson of The Athletic, not only have Tennessee’s coaches followed Cox on Twitter, but Jeremy Pruitt is one of the few coaches Cox has followed back on there. Other than that, there’s not much more to report. He should be priority No. 1 for the Vols this offseason, followed by Zach Evans.

Ben: Not at the moment, but if you’re Tennessee, you have to be doing your best to bring him in. The Vols could desperately use a pass-rusher off the edge following the graduation of Darrell Taylor.

“Thoughts on Zach Evans? I know this has been talked about a lot, but is Tennessee still in the mix for him?” – @The_Klassens

Nathanael: They definitely are. I think it’s down to Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss. I know people keep mentioning Texas A&M as an option, but I truly just don’t see them being where he ends up. His family and those around him want him to get out of Texas, and I just don’t see him ending up with the Aggies honestly. But UT is definitely still involved here. They have to survive his planned visit to Florida, though.

Ben: Yes, Tennessee is still in the mix. It appears to be down to Florida, Texas A&M, and Tennessee, but as we all know, the process for Evans has been very fluid. The latest news on Evans is that the Vols are working to host him on an unofficial visit before he takes an official visit to Florida next month.

“If we don’t get Evans which who knows with him.. I believe we have to get a game changing back in 21 class.. what are y’all’s thought?” – Stevie

Nathanael: I agree 100 percent with this. One of the Vols’ biggest priorities in the 2021 class needs to be landing an elite, game-changing back, even if they do end up landing Evans, in my opinion. Five-star TreVeyon Henderson and four-star Cody Brown are the two names to keep in mind in the 2021 class. I’d also watch four-star Kamarro Edmonds possibly, too.

Ben: Absolutely. In the SEC, a game-changing running back is needed just about every single season. For the 2021 class, all eyes are on five-star running back TreVeyon Henderson out of Hopewell, Virginia. Henderson plays at Hopewell High School where former Vol Darrell Taylor played in high school. There’s a reason Jeremy Pruitt has stuck Brian Niedermeyer on Henderson.

“Which would you rather happen? Make the NCAA tournament and a first round exit or win the NIT tournament?” – Brian

Nathanael: I would take making the NCAA Tournament and being bounced in the first round all day over winning the NIT. No offense to the NIT, but how often do you even remember who wins it? The only reason people remember that Texas did last year was because they acted like they just won the national title with how they celebrated it. Making the NCAAT, even as just an 11 or 12-seed and losing in the first round, is better for the program than winning the NIT, in my opinion. It means you were one of the top 68 teams in the country and did enough to make it back to the Big Dance for a third-straight season. I think winning the NIT would be a nice accomplishment, but I’d rather UT make the NCAA Tournament regardless.

Ben: I’m not one who would scoff at Tennessee winning the NIT Tournament, but I would have them make the NCAA Tournament even if it meant a first round exit. I feel this way for one reason, and one reason only: In the NCAA Tournament, you have a chance to win the National Championship. You don’t in the NIT.

“Can the baseball team finish top four in the SEC and host a regional?” – Samuel

Nathanael: I mean anything can happen, but I would be shocked if that did happen. Tennessee is a good team this year, probably the best they’ve been since 2005, but unfortunately for them, the SEC is absolutely stacked once again. If you think SEC football is difficult and loaded every year, take a look at SEC baseball. The Vols have three national title contenders in just the East alone, and the West also features several highly-ranked teams. I think UT will have a successful season, but I wouldn’t bank on them hosting a regional.

Ben: Theoretically, they “can,” but I wouldn’t bet on it. Tennessee baseball is legit, but in its own division stands No. 1 Florida, No. 3 Georgia and No. 5 Vanderbilt — three legitimate national title contenders. Then, on the other side of the division stands No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 10 Arkansas. SEC Baseball is simply the best, and finishing in the top four would be a tall task for the Vols.