RTI Mailbag: SEC Tournament is here, spring football is near

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    Photo Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Managing editor Ben McKee and RTI contributor Trey Wallace answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly Rocky Top Insider Mailbag.

    “How far can this basketball team go if John Fulkerson plays like he did against Florida last Sunday?” – Scott

    Ben: If Fulkerson plays the remainder of the season the way he did against Florida last Sunday, I’m confident in saying Tennessee will be playing for the SEC title this Sunday and will make it at least to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament (Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight), if not further. Fulkerson’s play is so critical because the Vols have no other reliable post presence. If he can consistently contribute around 15 points to go along with seven rebounds, Tennessee can go far.

    Trey: If Fulkerson can put that type of performance together in consecutive games, then I think the Vols will be playing on the second weekend. This team has the talent and ability to play through Fulkerson, but it’s all about how aggressive he is around the basket. If John can put up 12-15 points during this stretch, watch out.

    “Did Kentucky win? Now the serious question: Will Spraggins be good with this type of offense? He looked good when he was on the line last year?” – MochaJones

    Ben: That would be a no. Kentucky’s season being over on the Thursday of the SEC Tournament is an absurd reality.

    I think Spraggins fits in any offense because of his physical nature and the fact that he’s a mean offensive lineman. Spraggins was one of the strongest players on the team the moment he stepped foot on campus last year and has a great opportunity to start at one of the guard spots this season. He’ll have to adjust his body to play in this offense long with everyone else, but I think he’ll be perfectly fine.

    Trey: This will be a tough Spring practice for this group and Spraggins. They’ve got a whole new offense to learn, especially one that is so much faster. We’re talking about running a play every 10-15 seconds, so staying or getting in shape is key. I think he showed last season he could play the position, but his growth over the winter and into Spring will be huge for him. He can be a potential starter, but with this offensive coaching staff, it’s a whole new game.

    “What’s the status of some of the senior DL who could come back this year? Staying or gone? Also, whatever has happened to DeAngelo Gibbs?” — Todd

    Ben: All of Tennessee’s defensive lineman who finished the season out are back, except junior John Mincey who recently entered the transfer portal. Seniors Aubrey Solomon, Darel Middleton, Matthew Butler, LaTrell Bumphus and Ja’Quain Blakely are all back as of the beginning of March. The hope is that the veteran group can take a step forward under Rodney Garner similar to the step the unit took in Jeremy Pruitt’s second season with Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle.

    I would not expect Deangelo Gibbs to be part of the football team this fall.

    Trey: When it comes to players like Aubrey Solomon, Kurott Garland and Darel Middleton, it will be about how they’ll have a somewhat normal next six months. Having Spring practice and learning from Rodney Garner will only benefit this group. Having a player like Matthew Butler back as well, will help on the leadership side of things as well. The DL group was a disappointment last year, as it didn’t help with all the coaching movement. As for Gibbs, he’s still around the the complex.

    “What’s the over-under on how many in-state players we get in 2022 class?” – Yves Pons’ Saxophone

    Ben: That’s a great question. Prior to Jeremy Pruitt’s firing, it would have been fairly high, as Tennessee was positioned to land several, if not most, of the state’s top prospects. But firing Pruitt severely hampered Tennessee’s chances of taking advantage of the in-state crop. Josh Heupel simply doesn’t have the same type of relationship because he just took the job. I think the Vols will end up landing around 10 in-state prospects, if not more, when it’s all said and done.

    “If we lose 5 to transfer are you given a chance to replace those 5 players or does that count against this years signing number?” – RockyTopVol365

    Ben: Not necessarily. Tennessee can only bring in 25 players regardless of how many players transfer, whether one player transfers or 22 players transfer. Given the uptick in transfers recently, it’s a rule the NCAA should strongly consider changing.

    “Your prediction on the Vols first ‘22 commit.” – Michael Miller

    Ben: It’s going to be someone out of left field. The names we’ve become most familiar with are still trying to establish a relationship and get to know the new Tennessee coaching staff. Heupel and his crew have done a great job of remaining a strong factor with several top in-state prospects, however. Whether it be Destin Wade, Keaton Wade, Fisher Anderson or Addison Nichols.”

    Trey: That’s tough to answer right now for me, as Heupel is still getting to know these kids. I would say they’ll have one soon though, the coaches are grinding on the virtual recruiting trail.

    “Who in the transfer portal in your opinion do we get? Crouch and To’o To’o gone for good?” — Stevie Duckett

    Ben: It’s not official, but I would be surprised if Henry To’o To’o or Quavaris Crouch play in a Tennessee uniform ever again. I particularly don’t believe you’ll see To’o To’o return to Knoxville. Crouch had been working with the team until this week. Tennessee’s aggressiveness with the transfer portal won’t pick up until after spring staff once the new coaching staff has had a chance to evaluate the roster.

    Trey: I know it might sound generic, but you won’t see many moves involving the portal until after Spring football. The Vols will have some scholarships to hand out and I expect the coaching staff to start zeroing in on the positions they want to go after. They could definitely  use a defensive lineman and linebacker. I think Crouch is the only one the Vols have a real shot at keeping. Henry has been on the West Coast for a few months now, if you were going to be a part of the football team, he would’ve already been back.

    “how much are we buying the culture change and everyone really buying in? Is it all coach speak or is that some real buzz to it?” – BigShotRob44

    Ben: I’m buying the coach speak because I don’t think it’s just coach speak. I truly believe the new coaching staff is genuine and like each other on both sides of the ball. That won’t automatically lead to wins, but it’ll help and make a world of difference considering the horrific coaching dynamic Tennessee just got rid of under Pruitt. I’ve yet to hear a single bad word about any of the new coaches as people.

    Trey: I don’t think it’s all coach speak, as I’ve been told the players are actually enjoying the new staff right now. Coaching changes are always tough, so this staff is trying a lot of different activities to build trust within this group. It always takes a while to change a culture, just maybe not as hard for early enrollees or freshman, for obvious reasons.

    “Who fills the linebacker holes?” — DaveSergent

    Ben: I imagine there will be a transfer linebacker that Tennessee gets at some point over the next couple of months who will be involved in the rotation. As the roster currently sits, Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley are next in line at outside linebacker considering To’o To’o and Crouch aren’t likely to be back. Bryson Eason and Martavius French are also a possibility.

    On the edge, I think you’ll see Tyler Baron, Morven Joseph, Roman Harrison and junior college signee Byron Young battle it out for reps. All four are very intriguing prospects and Baron, Joseph and Harrison should take big steps forward.

    Trey: I’ll be very interested in the development of Morven Joseph, Bryson Eason and Jeremy Banks. Potentially losing your 2 starting ILB’s would be a blow for any team, so the Vols will need players like Roman Harrison and Martavius French go continue growing as players. The mental aspect of this as well be something to watch, as Tim Banks looks to install his defense. The Vols need to find their leader at this spot, so these 15 practices will be huge.

    “Do you believe the recordings of (Rush) Propst will be taken seriously? If so, what do you think will happen to Alabama and Georgia.” — Sterling Sanders

    Ben: They should be taken seriously, as I believe it’s pretty evident that was Propst’s voice and it’s no secret what Alabama and Georgia have been doing for years. Propst was also way too detailed in his answer to not have an idea of what is going. Plus, he’s well-connected to both programs and had no idea he was being recorded. But we all know nothing will actually come of it.

    Trey: I’ve followed Rush Propst since he coached 5 miles from my house at Alma Bryant in 1998 and the drama follows him everywhere. Rush has such a bad reputation that it’s hard to trust anything that comes out of that guys mouth. None of anything going on at his high school isn’t surprising, neither is the tape. Nothing is ever normal when Propst is coaching your team. I don’t think anything comes out of the tape, as Georgia has already been made aware. The funny part of the tape was him talking about Alabama booster Angus Cooper being the biggest donor on the Gulf Coast, which is far from truth.

    “Is there a player on the defensive side of the ball that could have a breakout year? Maybe become the alpha dog or a leader for the upcoming season?” — Ricky Klassen

    Ben: My vote is Harrison, who received some praise from NFL Draft Twitter earlier this week. He’s physically ready to make plays consistency and should be mentally ready as he enters his third college season. Plus, there’s plenty of opportunities at the outside linebacker position right now.

    Trey: Well, I know Tennessee is hoping Alontae Taylor takes that next step this season. The young man has the ability and awareness to be a top talent. It’s all about putting it together on a daily basis. I think Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph have the skill to become a household name in Tennessee over the next year. I am excited to see if Theo Jackson can be that guy in the secondary.

    “What position benefits the most from the coaching changes?” – Evan Reeves

    Ben: Every position on the offense that isn’t the offensive line and even they benefit. Tennessee’s offensive players are going from an offense stuck in the 1960’s to a modern-day offense that puts up a ton of points and develops quarterbacks. Plus, they won’t have a defensive-minded head coach taking the play sheet from the offensive coordinator during games.

    Trey: I would say defensive line and secondary could benefit the most during this chance. Having Rodney Garner come in and not trying to change too many formations is a positive. As he said in his media availability, it’s more about these players just learning different names for play calls, you’ll see a lot of the same kind of stunts and push. The secondary group will benefit from having both Willie Martinez and Tim Banks coaching this group. They have talent at certain spots and should be able to take advantage. But, the Vols have to build up depth. We’ve seen some of the talent this secondary has, not it’s about learning some potential new techniques and play calls.