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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.
“How bad do things have to be for our S&C coach to bolt for corona central (New York)?” – @vo_ldemort
Nathanael: You know, I’m not sure it’s a case of things being bad at Tennessee or Fitzgerald having hurt feelings or not liking it at Tennessee. It’s weird timing, for sure, but he did coach in the NFL before coming to UT, and he’s from up north and has family up there. I don’t think he would’ve taken to Twitter to thank Tennessee, Pruitt, and Fulmer if he was leaving on bad terms. I mean none of Tennessee’s other assistant coaches who left this offseason have done that, have they? I don’t recall seeing Kevin Sherrer, Tracy Rocker, or Chris Rumph do anything like that. David Johnson did praise Pruitt and UT (before having a weird comment he had to walk back from an FSU event), but I just don’t think this can completely be painted as Fitzgerald not being happy at Tennessee and wanting out.
Ben: There’s no chatter behind the scenes at the moment about friction between Craig Fitzgerald and Jeremy Pruitt, so I don’t believe it’s fair to say things are “bad” behind the scenes. It looks like Fitzgerald simply wanted to get back to the NFL and be closer to home up north.
“Who do you think coach Pruitt hires as the new Strength Coach. Will it be someone internal or someone else outside the organization?” – @TWA10672793
Nathanael: Hiring from within at this point in the offseason would make sense, but Tennessee doesn’t really have anyone else on staff with any experience leading a strength program. All the four main assistants under Fitzgerald are relatively young and haven’t been the main strength and conditioning coach at a major program like Tennessee. If they hire outside the organization, they could potentially bring back someone like Johnny Long, especially since Fulmer is back at UT. Former Vol defensive lineman Corey Miller could be a name to watch, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Pruitt look to the NFL ranks again. That’s where he found Fitzgerald in the first place.
Ben: It feels like a situation in which Jeremy Pruitt will promote from within due to the circumstances. Because of everything going on with the Coronavirus and the fact that it’s essentially the middle of spring practice, it’s likely going to be hard to hire someone away from another program. Tennessee does have the potential to, however. After all, whoever takes over as strength coach will have whatever resources they need at their disposal. But because of the timing of Fitzgerald leaving, Pruitt will likely have to promote from within.
“How does no spring practice/orange and white game affect the development of the team and expectations for next year?” – Evan
Nathanael: It certainly doesn’t help, especially the guys who really needed a good spring session like J.J. Peterson, Harrison Bailey, Roman Harrison, and basically the entire receiving corps and tight end group. The good news for Tennessee is that they won’t be at a huge disadvantage to other teams, because every other program is having to do without spring practices right now as well. I don’t know how much it should affect expectations for the 2020 season, but it does add a lot more questions heading into the summer and then the fall.
Ben: It definitely hurts. The good news, though, is that every other school in the country isn’t practicing either. So, essentially, no team is getting better this spring either on the football field or as a team in the weight room. In regards to Tennessee, it hurts several individuals. A couple that come to mind are Princeton Fant, Tim Jordan, Jahmir Johnson, J.J. Peterson, and Deandre Johnson. Each of those players were looking to earn jobs this spring and carve out playing time, but now that opportunity has been zapped.
Obviously, not having spring practice is big for the quarterback room as well. Everybody is quick to point out Harrison Bailey and Jarrett Guarantano for obvious reasons, but no spring practice is a bigger loss for J.T. Shrout and Brian Maurer. The two sophomores are at a crossroads and really needed to take a step forward this spring with Bailey and Jimmy Holiday stepping foot on campus.
“Can coaches talk to players about football, or do summer rules apply?” – @real_ndg
Nathanael: To my knowledge, yes, they still can. It’s not a dead period right now in terms of contact. Coaches can still contact recruits (they just can’t visit them or host them on visits), so I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to contact their own players, too.
Ben: Coaches can always talk to players about football, but they’re not allowed to work them through practices of any sort when they’re not in season.
“2 parter.. are we pursuing transfer RB from Oklahoma, if yes do we get him? And I got to ask, do we land Evans?” – Stevie
Nathanael: I’ve not heard anything about Tennessee pursuing Trey Sermon, the transfer running back from Oklahoma. I’m sure the Vols would like someone like him on the roster, but he looks to be interested in Ohio State. I think Chase Hayden would be a much more likely transfer option for UT not only because of his father being a former player at Tennessee, but because Hayden has two years of eligibility. Sermon only has one.
As far as Evans goes, I honestly have no clue. There’s not really any new info there other than that he can’t visit Florida now because of the coronavirus, so that’s good news for the Vols.
Ben: No, Tennessee is not currently pursuing Trey Sermon. If the Vols bring in a graduate transfer at the running back position, it’ll be Chase Hayden, but that’s only if Zach Evans doesn’t pick Tennessee, and there’s no update on that end. I truly don’t have a great feel for the Evans sweepstakes at the moment. It’s truly a guessing game.
“How much better – in terms of wins – should we expect men’s and ladies basketball to be next year…assuming this virus is not around?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: Yeah, assuming everything is cleared in time for teams to be able to have fall practices and preseason camp and everything, I’m very confident in the men’s team showing significant improvement next season. The schedule, as always, won’t be super easy for Tennessee, but the Vols add a lot of talent to an experienced core of players. I like their chances of winning 22-25 regular season games. As for the Lady Vols, that’s a lot more up in the air, in my opinion. Getting Zaay Green back will be nice, and Rennia Davis will have some help there and will also be a senior. But this team still lacks a lot of star power, and while getting Jordan Horston and Tamari Key another year of experience and adding some talented freshmen to the mix will help, I don’t know how much more improved next year’s team will truly be. I do think they won’t just be a fringe bubble team, but I don’t expect them to finish top three in the SEC, either.
Ben: To me it’s all about making the NCAA Tournament — for both programs. Seeding will be important, and that will be a result of wins in the regular season and SEC Tournament. The Lady Vols will still lack the elite talent to compete with the top teams in the country, but they should be better with Rennia Davis returning and Zaay Green returning from injury. As for the men’s team, I still want to see what moves they make this offseason, but it should be at least a 20-win team at minimum.
“What shows are Nathanael and Ben watching since there’s practically nothing to do?” – Justin
Nathanael: I’ve been watching a lot of Youtube videos in my “watch later” playlist that have accumulated over the years, and I’ve still got Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Brooklyn Nine-Nine coming out every Friday to watch, too. I can’t decide what all I want to watch besides those, though. I assume I’ll rewatch some old shows and movies, but I’m excited to dive in to some new stuff on my watch list, too.
Ben: I recently just finished the Sopranos, which ended up being one of my favorite shows ever. Tony Soprano is without a doubt my favorite character of any TV show ever. Now I’m binge-watching SEAL team and watching S.W.A.T., Survivor, Tommy, and WWE. I’m also playing a lot of video games (Fortnite, MLB: The Show and 2k) and listening to quite a bit of podcasts.