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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.
“Which coaching staff hates Tennessee more? Auburn, Florida, or Bama? Getting your teeth kicked in on the recruiting trail can’t be fun!” – @BuckToTheNasty1
Nathanael: You know, my gut wants to say Georgia actually. There’s no love at all between Pruitt and Kirby Smart, and I truly do not think those coaching staffs and players like each other at all. But of the three you listed, I’d pick Auburn. It’s clear that Pruitt doesn’t like Auburn, and he relishes in beating them both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The Tigers have had their fair share of wins on the recruiting trail against UT, but Pruitt has been doing a great job in this 2021 cycle of beating them for prospects.
Ben: I can assure you it is Georgia. Jeremy Pruitt and Kirby Smart don’t have as great of a relationship as you would expect considering their ties to Alabama. I personally don’t believe Pruitt has any dislike geared towards the Crimson Tide or Auburn coaching staff. He doesn’t necessarily like Auburn, but I don’t believe he dislikes the staff like he does Georgia’s.
“Assuming everyone committed in the ‘21 class signs & plays how long before our defense is elite? The best defense we’ve ever seen at UT?” – Cole
Nathanael: Well, maybe the best we’ve seen in quite a long time, but you’d be hard-pressed to be better than that 1998 defense or some of the defenses in the early 2000s. You also have the General Neyland defenses to contend with, but I assuming you’re just asking about “modern” football for UT. I don’t think it would be the best defense we’ve ever seen, but assuming everyone stays in the boat and they add a few more pieces, I think the Vols’ defense in a couple years could be one of the best in the country.
Ben: I’m not willing to go that far considering the names that were on that ’98 defense and the defenses throughout the 2000’s. There were a ton of NFL players to come off of those defenses. Now, the upcoming defenses that Pruitt will put on the field will have NFL potential all over the field, but it’ll have to produce before I’m willing to say it could be one of the best ever at UT. I think the first season we see a truly elite defense — an elite defense to me is one that ranks top five nationally — in Knoxville under Pruitt is 2022.
“Who is on your gettable wishlist for the remaining recruits out there om the 2021 class?” – @hesenij
Nathanael: I think they’re longer shots than others, but I’d include both Smael Mondon and Amarius Mims on my “gettable” wishlist. I’d also include Jahvaree Ritzie (though I think he’s heading to North Carolina) and Tyron Ingram-Dawkins. Payton Page and Dietrick Pennington round out my list.
Ben: Smael Mondon is the one on my “very gettable” wishlist, while Amarius Mims and Jahvaree Ritzie are on my “gettable” wishlist. Mims and Ritzie are simply long shots at the moment, while I think the Vols are in serious contention for Mondon along with Georgia. JT Daniels, the USC transfer quarterback, is also on my “very gettable” wishlist.
“They moved Crouch to ILB and Allen to TE. With depth not great at LB, does that mean they feel very confident in Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph coming in and being ready play or is depth not as big of a concern as I thought?” – Evan
Nathanael: I’d lean more toward Tennessee’s coaches feeling more confident in Baron and Joseph being able to contribute right away. Because to me, depth is definitely a concern at linebacker. I don’t think you’re wrong there. You basically have Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson as the most experienced returning guys on the outside, and I don’t think either of those players are truly elite, consistent options in the long term for the 2020 season. I think UT needs Baron and Joseph to contribute immediately, and I think both are capable.
Ben: The more concerning area of depth is at inside linebacker in my eyes. Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, J.J. Peterson, and incoming freshmen are your only legitimate options at the position entering the season. To’o To’o is going to be a star at the position, but outside of the sophomore, Crouch is coming off shoulder surgery in the midst of switching positions, Peterson hasn’t proven to be trustworthy, and the freshmen have yet to step foot on campus. That is very concerning.
At outside linebacker, at least you have Kivon Bennett, Deandre Johnson, and Roman Harrison to go along with the incoming freshman in Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph. The coaches are high on Baron and expect for him to contribute as a true freshman.
“How likely are we to get Paulo Banchero or Kennedy Chandler?” – Quinn
Nathanael: I think Tennessee currently leads slightly for Kennedy Chandler, but when you’re going up against Duke for a prospect, there’s no guarantee for that at all. As for Banchero, I don’t have as good of a feel on his recruitment, but I know both Chandler and Banchero have been asked about playing with each other in college, and both have expressed interest in doing so. If UT lands one of them, I think there’s a very good chance they land both. Tennessee could certainly use both in the 2021-22 season.
Ben: I love Tennessee’s chances as of the end of May for Kennedy Chandler. I don’t like its chances for Paulo Banchero. Tennessee assistant Kim English has done a great job recruiting Banchero, and the Vols have a legitimate shot at the five-star forward, but I have a hard time believing Banchero is going to leave the west coast and come all the way to Knoxville when he has so many ties to Washington.
“How much of a problem would Pons leaving create for the men’s b-ball team?” – @tjvol49
Nathanael: It would create a big hole that I don’t think Tennessee could fill with their current roster setup. Pons leaving for the NBA would strike a blow to UT’s frontcourt depth, and they’d lose their rim protector and best shot blocker. Plus, the versatility Pons brings on defense and how much he’s grown on offense makes him such a unique player. The only player who could potentially “replace” him would be grad transfer EJ Anosike, but he wouldn’t be able to do what Pons can athletically.
Thankfully for Tennessee, I don’t think Pons stays in the draft pool this year. I think he’s doing what Admiral Schofield did after his junior year, and I believe he’ll ultimately return for his senior season.
Ben: A big one. Tennessee currently has a great trio of post options in Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, and Sacred Heart grad transfer EJ Anosike, but if Pons were to remain in the NBA Draft, the Vols would then need Uros Plavsic and/or Olivier Nkamhoua to step up and play valuable minutes. It’s possible Plavsic or Nkamhoua could take a big step forward, but I imagine it’s not a situation the coaching staff would want to take place.