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RTI Mailbag: Tennessee One Week Closer To Kick Off

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee is nine practices into fall camp and scrimmaged at Neyland Stadium this week for the first time this fall.

The Vols are just 18 days away from kicking off the 2021 season against Bowling Green.

Our team tackles questions from readers taken from Twitter replies and messages as the Vols get closer to kick-off.

Strongest position group? weakest?

Ric Butler: As far as the strongest position group, I do believe that’s on the offensive side of the ball. Especially combined with the offensive prowess that the coaching staff has seemingly brought to the table. Running backs and wide receivers stand out to me the most. Honestly, between both positions, Tennessee really does have some playmakers. The Tennessee offense has been stagnant for years, so many of these players have not hit their full potential in the same way that a Josh Palmer might not have either. Tennessee has some very good skill players, and I expect them to be the team’s most productive position.

It’s likely a common answer, but that’s because it’s true. The linebacker position is likely the weakest on the team right now. However, it might also be the most unproven position as well, in terms of “player potential energy” if you will. Tyler Baron, Bryson Eason, and Morven Joesph are all entering their first non-covid season. Juwan Mitchell played for Texas last year, and Byron Young played for Georgia Military Academy. And Jeremy Banks had surgery prior to spring ball in 2021. There are just so many question marks. I think the linebacker position will be one that grows in time, rather than pops off right away.

Ryan Schumpert: Strongest position group is a tough question. I like the defensive line’s potential and think Tennessee has three or four really solid receivers. I’m going to go with the running backs though. I think Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans are going to be really solid and you won’t see a massive drop off in production there despite the Vols losing Eric Gray and Ty Chandler to the transfer portal. For the weakest position I think it’s definitely linebacker. No players who have solidified themselves as average SEC players and very, very little depth.

Trey Wallace: I’d say one of the strongest position groups would be the WR room. Kodi Burns inherited a lot of talent, some unexpected, so the offense will have a good amount of weapons to use this year in offense. I really like the depth right now, but they can’t afford any injuries.

The weakest spot in my opinion is the LB group, they don’t have much depth at all, which will hurt them this season, especially if the offense is only on the field for short periods of time. They’ve got to build up some kind of depth, whether that be Solon Page, Pakk Garland, Aaron Beasley or even Morven Joseph. Point being, this is a group that could struggle if they don’t get what is needed from Jeremy Banks or Juwan Mitchell.

Any team leaders emerging?

Ric: I’ll be honest, speaking of the linebackers, every time I have seen Jeremy Banks he has been coaching up other players and talking to coaches, relaying information for his teammates. To me, from an outside perspective, it seems like Jeremy Banks has been through a lot in his first few years at Tennessee, but has come out of those experiences stronger and more focused. It seems like he is as active as anyone out there communicating. Other than Banks, it is a lot of the usual suspects, which isn’t a bad thing at all. I have also seen Matthew Butler as a guy that looks really rejuvenated and is ready to lead the defensive line. Butler is often one of, if not the first, lineman to go through DL reps.

Ryan: I think that leadership is going to be a major question for this team. Quarterback competition will make it hard for one quarterback to be a real strong leader in fall camp. I think the two guys that went to SEC Media Days, Alontae Taylor and Velus Jones Jr, are solid leaders as is Cade Mays. I think this team is leaning on leadership from coaches right now to push the team. Once the losses come, you need that player-led leadership. How strong that will be on this team is still to be determined.

Trey: You’re going to have certain guys that are vocal within their position groups, like Alontae Taylor or even Cade Mays. I think this team is still looking for their true leaders, overall. Like I said, even a Velus Jones Jr. is a guy who is vocal within the WR room. But, this team needs their alpha and I think they are close to finding it.

What are the expectations for Dee Beckwith at running back? He looks like a Derrick Henry 2.0.

Ric: I’m not entirely sure, but I also think that is something that is being evaluated at fall camp right now. Like I said in the first question, Tennessee has a lot of skilled players at receiver and running back, and Beckwith is one of them. With the combination of Heupel and Golesh, I would imagine they are trying to find ways to get him the ball in a valuable and productive way.

However, knowing that he likely won’t be the featured back at the start of the season, I do think the coaches will experiment with different ways to use him early on. Whether that’s in the red zone, in third and fourth down situations, or whatever the case may be. I think Beckwith’s role could become more and more finalized as they figure out how to best use him.

Ryan: It was clear listening to Heupel this week that Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans are Tennessee’s top two running backs but after that it’s very much up in the air. I think Tennessee will play three running backs and Beckwith has a chance to earn those reps but there’s no guarantee. I’m curious if with his size he can be effective in short-yardage situations or if that role will be Evans. Also, with his past playing tight end, receiver I’m intrigued if he can become a solid pass catcher out of the backfield.

Trey: Beckwith will be used in certain formations and out of the backfield. They will have plays for Dee, he has way too much talent for them not to use. Right now though he is probably 3rd or 4th when it comes to the running back room. But, they will get him reps and will definitely use him in interesting ways this year.

Vols’ boosters going to follow BYU’s NIL model to overcome scholarship reductions due to NCAA sanctions?

Ric:  I have not fully studied the BYU situation, yet. However, my broad thought on NIL is this: Whether it’s Tennessee following BYU, Kansas following Ohio State, or any other random combination, I do not think anyone’s particular model is going to be a sure-fire success at the beginning. I think all of these schools will sit, watch, and learn from each other, and over time that’ll carve out a good idea into what a solid model looks like. Regardless though, BYU’s model is fascinating for all of college football going forward.

Ryan: This BYU situation, where a local business has paid the tuition of all of the team’s walk ons, is a fascinating early case study on NIL. This situation is awesome and seemingly was all done in good spirit but it opens up the worm of local businesses and boosters pay for walk-ons to give teams extra scholarships. And if you’re Tennessee why would you not try to do that? The 25-player limit you can sign every season is going to make it a long time until Tennessee can get back to a full 85 scholarship athletes. This gives you a huge loophole to catching your roster depth up. NIL as a whole should be something Tennessee is exploring with a lot of detail. Anything that can give the Vols a competitive advantage as they work through the coming NCAA sanctions is a huge plus.

Trey: Every school is promoting their players as much as possible, within the rules. I think with boosters or advertisers, it’s all about who is marketable at Tennessee. In the case of BYU, that was a local company who’s been supporters of Cougar football for a while and found a fantastic way to help those walk-ons out. But, they are pretty much saying they have 105 scholarship athletes now, which is interesting.

People say Milton was bad at Michigan because of the system and give him a pass even though he had a 47% completion percentage in high school. Why does the staff feel better about molding him into a high-level player than they do Bailey, who was proven in high school and had a high passing percentage last season?

Ric: I’m thrilled to finally say this. I think the coaches are going to choose whichever quarterback gives them the best chance to win this season. In a way, thats also the benefit of having a new coaching staff with fresh eyes. I don’t think they are putting a ton of stock into high school stats, situations from previous schools, etc (Although, admittingly, I am not in the war room). Harrison Bailey is a very talented quarterback who has been working hard at a chance to be Tennessee’s starting quarterback. At the same time though, guys like Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker have also been working their butts off for years to be a starting college football quarterback, too. Each quarterback has a good off-the-field story – Milton and Hooker have the “redemption after transferring” angle, and Bailey has the “hard work pays off” angle. All are good stories. But at the end of the day, this isn’t high school, and it isn’t the Big 10 in 2020. I feel fairly confident that coaches Heupel, Halzle, and Golesh are going to choose whichever quarterback they believe will give the 2021 Tennessee Volunteers football team the best chance to WIN in their preferred scheme. And who knows, they might not end with the same guy they start with as many variables could come into play. Coach Heupel said from day one that the starting QB will have to “earn” their job over the next month. Not earn it with high school stats or big talk, but with their play on the field during fall camp.

Ryan: Well I think the reason Tennessee’s coaches are higher on Milton’s potential than Bailey’s due to his arm strength and mobility. Heupel’s offense is predicated on throwing the ball vertically down the sidelines and that fits Milton’s game better. I still have questions on Milton’s decision making and touch but him not turning the ball over in last week’s scrimmage is a good sign. On Bailey, he was definitely helped in high school for playing along with elite talent. His completion percentage was high last season but that was due to a lot of check downs late in games when Tennessee was losing and he was getting mop up duty. Bailey and Hooker have been getting the same amount of reps as Milton has to this point so I don’t think the staff isn’t giving Bailey a fair chance by any means. The potential is just higher for Milton.

Trey: Honestly I think with Milton it’s about how he was performing before he tore ligaments in his thumb. This staff has known Joe for a while now and they feel he fits what they are trying to do within their system. Josh Heupel has said that they will work around whichever QB gives them the best chance of winning. If you look at HB’s numbers last season, they are kind of inflated because of the teams he was throwing against. He threw around seven dump downs in the Arkansas game, and had success over the middle against Vanderbilt. Sometimes you can’t judge numbers by just looking at them, you have to see how he got there. But, I think the future is bright, whenever or wherever Bailey would play. Could be against Bowling Green.

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