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 long can the SEC wait until they announce their plan for football? And if worst-case happens and if no football in the fall what does that mean about spring and winter sports?” – Samuel
Nathanael: I imagine (and hope) we hear something either at the end of July or at the beginning of August. I believe the SEC is supposed to meet next week to discuss things, so maybe we will have more answers then.
As for the worst-case scenario: I don’t imagine there won’t be a football season period in the fall, but if there isn’t, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens with spring and winter sports. Basically every other sport would be easier to do during this pandemic than football, so it seems unfathomable to me that there wouldn’t be a basketball or baseball season in college if they still tried to do football in the spring or sometime.
Ben: Honestly they can wait as long as they want before announcing their plan for the season, but I think we’ll hear something within the next two weeks. Something has to shake out so that everyone can start preparing for the plan that is set in place. I would be surprised if the winter or spring sports are severely affected. Winter sports may see a delay, and it may not play non-conference games, but I would be surprised if there were no season. I would be even more surprised if spring sports are affected to that extent as well.
“If the SEC does the plus-one scenario for scheduling, would UT keep the Oklahoma game? If we play 9 games and 4 of them are against top 10 teams, we could easily have the toughest schedule in the country. And if we go 5-4, that looks like a disappointment and could lose some key pieces in recruiting.” – Jon
Nathanael: If it were me, there would be a uniform scheduling policy across the Power Five, but since there’s no College Football Commissioner, I don’t see a way that can really be implemented. If you look at the Big 12, they’re incapable of playing more than nine conference games in a season because there’s only 10 teams in that conference. I think if conferences are going to do a conference-only schedule or something of the like, every major conference should play the same amount of games. Whether that’s nine conference games, nine plus a non-conference game, or whatever, I would like to see some uniformity amidst this.
But your point about Tennessee’s schedule being ridiculously tough if they do keep Oklahoma on the schedule is valid. I’m just not sure if that will be what happens, but several SEC teams want to keep their out-of-conference rivals on their schedule for the upcoming season, so that may affect things.
Ben: It depends on whether or not the plus-one is in order to add an extra conference game. I think the SEC will mandate a conference-only schedule and Tennessee won’t play Oklahoma, or the schedule will remain as is and Tennessee will play the non-conference opponents on its schedule assuming that the conferences that those teams are in play non-conference games. I don’t believe we’ll see a scenario in which we see the Vols play an extra conference game in addition to playing Oklahoma.
“Do you think that transfer tight end from USC will join the Vols and his former teammate Velus Jones?” – @VOL_TN
Nathanael: I do not, no. I don’t think there’s any tight end in the transfer portal currently that would necessarily warrant bringing in for a season and taking up a roster spot. I know that scholarship spot wouldn’t be used beyond this season, but none of the TEs I see in the transfer portal currently look like they’ll be big improvements over what UT already has on the roster. Plus, bringing in a one-year player this late in the offseason — even if this football season is pushed back — is less than ideal, especially at tight end. As Jayson Swain pointed out on his show on Thursday, tight ends have to know a ton about the offense. They have to know run plays and pass plays both, and the blocking schemes for all of those plays. Only the quarterback has to know more.
Ben: I say no because Tennessee doesn’t currently have any room to bring anybody in. If there was a spot open, it would be a different conversation, especially when you consider Daniel Imatorbhebhe played under Tee Martin and is a former teammate of Jones. Tennessee should definitely kick the tires, however. The Vols desperately need help at the tight end position.
“How good are the Vols’ chances of landing Payton Page?” – Thomas
Nathanael: Right now, I’d say they’re running second. If Clemson wants to take him, that’s where I see him ending up. The only way he doesn’t commit to the Tigers, in my opinion, is if Clemson isn’t sold on him being able to improve his conditioning or if they think he’s not as good of a fit in their defense. Honestly, he’d be a better fit in UT’s defense, but Page really likes Clemson.
Ben: Not great. I would be surprised if Page doesn’t announce to Clemson on July 28. Tennessee has fought hard for the defensive tackle out of North Carolina, but he’s been enamored with the Tigers from the jump.
“If we miss on Page, what commit or target on the market becomes our focus for Nose Tackle? Need that 6-4 or 6-5, 330 pound body in the middle.” – Gary
Nathanael: Honestly, there isn’t really anyone else on UT’s board who would fit the nose tackle mold as well as Page. The Vols may have to rely on someone already on the roster like Elijah Simmons or someone else to be that nose tackle, because the only other name that comes to mind for me in the 2021 class that could fill that role down the line is Tywone Malone out of New Jersey. The elite defensive tackle, who also excels at baseball, is about 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, but that’s still different than the size Page would bring. He’d be the one I’d circle, however. There’s a chance Vol commit KaTron Evans could play at nose, too.
Ben: At defensive tackle, landing Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins becomes even more important that it already is. Tennessee envisions Ingram-Dawkins as a three-technique or five-technique and would be thrilled to land him. The Vols sit well for the South Carolina prospect, who recently named a top six of North Carolina, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. The Gamecocks are Tennessee’s biggest competition, while the Crimson Tide are lurking.
Tennessee will also continue to pursue two-sport athlete Tywone Malone, the four-star defensive tackle from Jarrett Guarantano’s high school: Bergen Catholic in New Jersey. The baseball prospect, who has been compared to Frank Thomas, doesn’t intend on announcing a decision until January at the Under Armour All-American Game.
“Who do you think is the biggest sleeper from the 2021 football recruiting class? – @vflgbo68
Nathanael: I’m torn between saying Roc Taylor, Elijah Howard, and Jaylen Wright. I absolutely love the physical tools that Taylor brings to a wide receiver room, and I truly envision him being a Jauan Jennings-type of player for UT should he stick with the Vols. Howard is a dynamic athlete who might get attention from Vol fans because he’s an in-state kid, but nationally I’m sure he isn’t paid attention to much. I think he’s a phenomenal athlete. Jaylen Wright is known because of his blazing fast speed, but he’s also bulked up some more and could be a major sleeper in this class. Man, you could even throw De’Shawn Rucker in there, the three-star defensive back who Clemson really wanted but Tennessee landed.
Ben: Kaemen Marley. The North Carolina native is ranked as a four-star, but he’s discussed as much as a two-star commit. Marley has played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, free safety, and strong safety for his high school. He had 26 total touchdowns, 814 receiving yards, 396 rushing yards, and three interceptions as a junior. Those are the type of guys you want on your football team. Good football players who can do anything you ask them to do.
“What positions do we have to address in our 22 class?” – Stevie
Nathanael: It’s tough to really say definitively right now without knowing how UT’s 2021 class will play out or how the Vols’ roster after the 2020 season will look, but initially I’d say bringing in some more offensive and defensive linemen is a must. You always like to land a quarterback every cycle if you can, and it would behoove the Vols to go after a few more secondary players in the 2022 class, too.
Ben: I don’t believe there is a position that Tennessee absolutely has to address in the 2022 class because, theoretically, with four recruiting classes under his belt, Pruitt should have completely flipped the roster that he inherited.
But there are still positions that will most definitely need to be addressed. You always want to bring in a quarterback, offensive linemen, and edge rushers. Outside of that, it’s important to continue to bring in recruits that are capable of beating Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It’s that simple.
“What is the thought process behind being so guard heavy in hoops? I know a lot of these guards are guard/forward combos but it doesn’t seem like we get the top big man or two we need to contend. Thoughts?” – @hesenij
Nathanael: If this were 10 years ago or so, I’d share this concern with you. But as it is now, you don’t need a dominating big man to win at a high level. It absolutely helps to have a bunch of big forwards down low, but it’s not as imperative to land an elite center anymore with how guard-heavy basketball has become in general. This season, Tennessee has John Fulkerson, EJ Anisoke, and hopefully Yves Pons as good forwards to battle down low. But outside of Fulky, all those forwards are capable of spreading out the floor to an extent, and it’s more and more common to see stretch-fours play alongside more traditional fours on the court rather than having a true four and five.
It’s still good to have a post presence, though, and UT is doing their due diligence there. Both Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith are 6-foot-9 or taller, and Tennessee is also involved with five-star center Charles Bediako. Rick Barnes, and college basketball at large, has moved more towards grabbing as many 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8 players as you can and have them play different positions.
Ben: That’s new-age basketball for you. Not to say that a top big man wouldn’t be welcomed, it’s just that the style of basketball has changed. At every level, it’s all about position-less basketball; guys that can do it all. The old school big man doesn’t exist. You rarely see a post player anymore that can’t stretch the floor.
Tennessee is recruiting some top big men in five-stars Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith, however. Those guys would be program-changing players that are capable of leading the Vols to a National Championship with the roster that already exists in Knoxville.