Managing editor Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“What is taking so long in Knoxville? Is the decision made and we are working out details before announcing?” – Logan Taylor
“Is it possible for the investigation to wrap up this week?” — Ricky Klassen
Ben: No, a decision has not been made yet. It’s the investigation that is prolonging the situation. Interviews are still taking place in an effort to be as thorough as possible. It’s frustrating for everyone involved, but Tennessee is working with a sense of urgency even if it doesn’t feel like it from the outside looking in. UT needs to make a decision soon and I think it will by the end of the week as the first team meeting of the spring will be held this weekend. Classes start next Tuesday on the 19th.
“Will Tennessee fire Pruitt with cause?” – Vitello for president
“Hearing a lot on the message boards with Kevin Steele coming to Tennessee… what’s the scoop?” – Josh Anderson
Ben: Kevin Steele is a legitimate option for Pruitt. Steele and Tennessee are currently trying to work out a deal for him to return to Rocky Top. That involves sorting out how much he will get paid after Auburn bought him out, as well as what role he’ll serve on the defensive staff. It would be a tremendous hire for Pruitt and even if Pruitt isn’t the head coach next season, the new head coach should try to retain Steele.
“Will Fulmer survive the investigation? If Pruitt is fired, who are your top candidates to replace him?” – RagingIguana
Ben: I don’t believe the investigation will be what causes Fulmer his job. If Fulmer were to be forced out as athletic director, it would be because of his ties to Pruitt. Fulmer has portrayed a belief that Pruitt deserves a fourth season and if those above Fulmer ultimately disagree, they could both be out of jobs.
I would consider Freeze and Lane Kiffin, but I don’t believe Tennessee will go that route. Bill O’Brien and Doug Marrone would get a look. Tennessee isn’t in a position to scoff at the idea of Tom Herman or Gus Malzahn even if they’re not perfect candidates. Indiana head coach Tom Allen should also be on Tennessee’s list.
A name that I would consider is Army head coach Jeff Monken. Fans won’t like it because he’s not sexy like a Kiffin or a Freeze, and they’ll get caught up on the triple option, but he’s not married to running the triple option. Monken is a winner, his defenses are great, his players love playing for him and he would instill a culture that Tennessee desperately needs. I’m not saying he’s a perfect fit or Tennessee should hire him, but he should be considered.
“Do you believe Pruitt will be our coach in 2021 and do we land Gilbert?” — Stevie Duckett
Ben: I honestly do not know or have a feel one way or the other if Pruitt will be back. Last week, I would have said that I would be surprised if he returned for a pivotal fourth year, but he has since landed a talented transfer quarterback and is on the verge of making a great defensive staff hire in Kevin Steele. To me, those are signs of someone who is coming back. But it’s not a done deal and there’s still a chance either situation could take place.
Arik Gilbert has expressed interest in Tennessee and current Vol players such as Harrison Bailey, Gilbert’s high school quarterback, have tried to get him to come here. It doesn’t sound like Tennessee has a great chance, however. He’s working through some personal issues as he also considers Georgia, Auburn and Florida.
“What are your thoughts on the hiring Freeze and will Tennessee be able to land quality transfers with all this going on?” – Evan Reeves
“At what point should this investigation come to an end? The longer this takes the less likely Tennessee is able to check off the offseason boxes.” — Evan Reeves
Ben: I think Hugh Freeze would be a good hire for Tennessee, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Freeze is a terrific football coach who made Nick Saban change his offensive philosophy. He’s one of three coaches — along with Gus Malzahn and Dabo Swinney — to be a thorn in the side of Saban, but Freeze also comes with quite a big of baggage in the form of NCAA issues, as well as off-the-field issues. It’ll be hard for Tennessee to hire Freeze after conducting an investigation into Pruitt, in my opinion. But he’s definitely a good football coach and I think he would win here. He just may burn the program to the ground in the process of doing so.
I didn’t think Tennessee would be able to land quality transfers with everything going on, but then Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker signed with the Vols on Friday. More on him in a moment.
The investigation should come to an end when Tennessee feels like it has appropriately concluded. Only they know why they are looking into Pruitt and his program. As long as they are working with a sense of urgency, they shouldn’t conclude things until they’ve been thorough enough to dot every i and cross every t. You are right, though. The longer it takes, the harder it is to hire coaches or add transfers.
“If a coaching change is made to say O’Brien or Marrone, is no one afraid they would leave for an NFL position asap? Then we will be here again in 2-3 years.” — Allen Wheeler
Ben: That’s a valid point that I honestly hadn’t thought of too this point. While that would be an unfortunate situation for the Vols, they shouldn’t operate with that in mind. If they believe O’Brien or Marrone is the option for Tennessee, they should hire them and cross that bridge when it arrives. Besides, if that were to happen, that would mean they were successful at UT and the program is in a much better situation to go out and make a hire.
“Thoughts on the transfer quarterback?” — Mocha Jones
Ben: Hooker is a great pickup for Tennessee. He was one of the best quarterback options on the transfer market and I was legitimately shocked that he wanted to come play for the Vols due to the uncertainty regarding the program.
The Virginia Tech transfer had somewhat of a down year, but he can play. Hooker has shown that he can be accurate with the football, not turn the ball over and make plays with his legs. That’s what Tennessee is lacking and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Hooker as the starting quarterback in the 2021 season opener.
“Do you think we will get any of the top transfers from the portal?” – Austin C
Ben: It’s going to be hard for Tennessee to do so, but it has already done so at the quarterback position. Now the Vols have to go out and attract an edge rusher or two, as well as a corner following the departure of Bryce Thompson. It may be in UT’s best interest to add another playmaker on offense as well whether that be a wide receiver or tight end. There may be quite a bit of unrest on Rocky Top, but there’s a quick path to early playing time and transfers will recognize that. Hooker did.
“Did Fulmer accept the bowl bid to make the assistants that declined to take a pay cut, forgo their bowl bonuses even though they probably had a good idea that there were COVID issues and they weren’t going to the bowl game?” — Dave Sergent
Ben: No. Phillip Fulmer and Tennessee accepted a bowl bid because if Jeremy Pruitt is to return for a fourth season, the team needs as many practices as possible, even if it’s only a week’s worth. The Vols had every intention of playing in the Liberty Bowl against West Virginia until issues with COVID popped up.
“Jeff Fisher?” — Andrew Chimenti
“Since Tennessee has to go to Nashville on Tuesday where will the Tennessee/Vanderbilt game that was supposed to be played in February be played at? Also what does your projected weekend rotation look like for the baseball team?” – Samsmith
Ben: Well, now that Tuesday night’s game has been postponed due to COVID issues within Tennessee’s program, I imagine it’ll simply be played as scheduled.
Yes, a baseball question with just 37 days remaining until college baseball season begins. You don’t understand how happy that makes me. Anyway, Tennessee will once again have plenty of options on the mound. The narrative will be that they’ll take a step back following the departure of Garrett Crochet, but they won’t. UT had one of the best pitching staffs in the country and that was without Crochet who only pitched once last year before the season got shutdown. Most of that pitching staff is back to go along with some intriguing freshmen.
A month away from the season, I’ll say Jackson Leath and Chad Dallas are two of the three starters, although Dallas could be used as a versatile weapon out of the bullpen. Tony Vitello and Frank Anderson could go a number of different directions for the third starter. Whether that be Sean Hunley, Jason Rackers, Elijah Pleasants or Blake Tidwell.
“JJJ is becoming the player we hoped he’d be when he signed with UT. How far can he take this team? Seems like their best basketball is still in front of them and he could be the key to that.” — Ricky Klassen
Ben: Tennessee’s best basketball is absolutely still in front of them. The offense still needs to find a more consistent rhythm and Josiah-Jordan James is going to play a big role in doing so. James is without a doubt playing great basketball. As Rick Barnes recently said, he’s the most consistent player on the team and is becoming the voice of the team as well. James is going to play a huge role for the Vols if they’re going to achieve their goals at the end of the season.
“How much longer do you think until this investigation is completed? Is it time for Big Ben to hang it up? What’s our Lady BasketVols chances of upsetting UConn in a few weeks?” – Jonah_Nickles
Ben: I answered your question about the investigation at the of the mailbag. No, I don’t think it’s time just yet. Big Ben definitely regressed this season, but to me, there’s still a little bit of lemonade to be squeezed out of that lemon. The biggest issue with the Steelers’ offense this year was the offensive line.
UConn is just a different animal. Kellie Harper has the Lady Vols going in the right direction, but the roster isn’t where it needs to be just yet in order to beat an elite team. Tennessee will fight hard like it always does under Harper, but I don’t think it has much of a chance unfortunately.
“Why are polls worthless?” – Triple O
Ben: Because those who have a vote aren’t passionate enough to keep up with the entirely of the sport they cover. They’re lazy and rely on a ton of group-think. They get done with the team they cover and stop paying attention. It’s sad honestly. If some media members had the same passion for the sport they cover as fans do, polls would be more accurate.
“Who is your favorite Vol rapper?” – Adam White
Ben: Swiperboy, but Andy is a close second.