RTI Mailbag: Tennessee Heads To Missouri

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    Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

    Tennessee heads back on the road this week, traveling to Columbia, Missouri to face Eli Drinkwitz and the Tigers.

    While the Vols stay on the road, the challenge and environment will be easier against a struggling Missouri team. The RTI team answers all your questions about the Vols and the week five matchup in this week’s mailbag article.

    Can some big body besides Jerome Carvin play center if Cooper Mays can’t go?

    Ric Butler: Tennessee said throughout fall camp that they definitely worked on rotation between some players and some spots on the line. However, it does seem like Carvin is the most experienced guy there to hold down the middle of the offensive line in Mays’ absence. I believe that OL Ollie Lane is the next guy in line in the depth chart, but it has been evident early on that Tennessee has plans to shake up the offensive line during injuries, rather than just always going to the next man on the depth chart. Regardless, though, Tennessee’s offensive line is best with Mays at center and Carvin to his left.

    Ryan Schumpert: Cooper Mays returned from injury Saturday night at Florida but it didn’t take him long to get banged up again. The sophomore center gritted out both a hand and leg injury but it questionable for this week’s matchup at Missouri. If Mays wasn’t able to go there are a few options besides playing Jerome Carvin at center. Right guard Javontez Spraggins could theoretically move over to center this week. We haven’t heard anything about Spraggins working at center since the start of fall camp. However, it’s reasonable to think he’s gotten at least some work there. Another option is Ollie Lane. Lane is listed as the back up center on Tennessee’s depth chart, but has only earned playing time at guard this season while Mays was injured and Carvin moved from left guard to center. While both of those players are options at center, I’d be shocked if it isn’t Carvin at center and either Lane or Kingston Harris— if he’s available— at left guard.

    Are there any players you see stepping up over the next two games?

    Ric: Sure! There are a few. Byron Youg, for starters, is a guy that I am keeping my eye on. After missing the first two games of the season due to eligibility concerns, I’m really curious what Young will look like after having some critical game experience after the last few games. Tennessee still needs help on the pass rush, which can always be used. Young is a guy that can provide that rush for Tennessee if he continues to approve and get comfortable on the field. Offensively, Tennessee has had a good amount of mental errors on that side of the ball, so I’m looking at some of the receivers to step up and fix some of their mistakes. Most notably, how does Jimmy Calloway rebound after a critical late-game drop against Florida? How do the receivers as a whole bounce back after problems with drops the last few weeks? The Tennessee receivers need to step up to take some pressure off of the quarterbacks. There is a considerable amount of talent and speed in that room, so I do expect them to improve overall.

    Ryan: Tennessee is heading into its biggest two-game stretch of the season with winnable matchups against Missouri and South Carolina on the horizon. This is a bit of a cheat answer because he’s been one of Tennessee’s best defensive players this season, but I’m going to go with Tyler Baron. Baron has been effective this season, recording 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. Still, Baron’s snaps have been limited as he’s dealt with minor injuries in a handful of games. I think with more snaps there’s a good chance Baron breaks out with a pair of really strong games. Freshman Christian Charles is another defender I could see coming on and having a strong back half of the season, but the next two games will likely be too early to see a big step up. On offense, I’m going to go with either Jimmy Calloway or Velus Jones Jr. Those are Tennessee’s two best receivers with the ball in their hands. After a month of watching Josh Heupel, I feel confident he’ll scheme up some opportunities for his receivers to make plays— especially against a struggling Missouri defense. I think Calloway will bounce back from his two drop game at Florida and Jones will continue to earn more playing time and touches.

    With Hooker being hurt how cautiously would you use him in the run game and if he couldn’t fully use his legs would you start Milton?

    Ric: The Tennessee offense is about speed, speed, and more speed. One of the biggest aspects of an offense like that is simply the ability to make something out of nothing from the quarterback position. And in the most effective cases, the quarterbacks’ ability to run out of the pocket is vital. I will say this, against Missouri, I don’t think it’s the biggest concern in the world. I think that Tennessee can certainly move the ball on the ground with their collection of running backs, which can maybe take some pressure off of Hooker running the ball. Again, even though the game is far from an expected routine win, I’m not sure if you will need Hooker to be the most dynamic person on the field in order to win. Ultimately though, at the end of the day, his true health status is unknown, which probably plays a pretty big part. I would be careful, regardless, knowing how important he is to the team. But do I think Tennessee can win without using Hooker in the run game as often as usual? I do.

    Ryan: This is a great question and one that’s hard to answer without knowing all the details of his injury. But the crux of your question is a great point, Hooker is most effective when he’s running and can extend pass plays with his feet. That would be especially valuable against a Missouri defense that’s been porous against the run this season. It’s hard not to see a healthy Hooker and Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans not having success on the ground against the Tigers. For that reason, I’m still running Hooker against Missouri— even if he’s limited. In Tennessee’s hunt to win six games, this may be the most important. The Vols are better than Vanderbilt and South Carolina— though this one is closer. Tennessee needs just one more SEC win to become bowl eligible if they take care of those two teams and South Alabama. I think Missouri is the best opportunity to get that win. So if Hooker is limited with his legs but can still run, I would play him over Milton. If Hooker can’t run at all I think you have to play Milton. Maybe Hooker could still be effective on short passes but once it’s clear he’s not comfortable running it’ll become much easier for Missouri to scheme up pressures against the Vols’ banged-up offensive line.

    Is it a concern that Heupel is not recruiting at an SEC level?

    Ric: Funny enough, I feel strongly about both sides of the “yes” and “no” here. For argument’s sake though, I will try to defend the “no” side. Before Heupel arrived, there was so much negativity and turmoil around the Tennessee program. Not just in the Pruitt era, Tennessee’s troubles have extended beyond that as well. The simple truth is this: the kids that are high school recruits now never saw Tennessee in their heyday. Kids today don’t “remember” Tennessee as a powerhouse. That’s not a selling point. These kids have seen Alabama’s entire dynasty run while growing up… not when the Tide stunk in the ’90s. Tennessee HAS to rebuild its image under the Heupel administration, and until they do that, Tennessee is just another SEC team with some great facilities and a one-of-a-kind stadium. In order to recruit at an “SEC level” you have to prove that you can be successful at the “SEC level”. I’m not going to fault Heupel for Tennessee’s image completely dropping off the map for the majority of the last decade. Will it be up to Heupel to fix that? Yes. But when Bama, Clemson, and Georgia can promise playoff appearances… it’s going to be an uphill battle. Once recruits are able to see how successful they can be in the Tennessee offense, that’s when the image starts to turn. Yes, it’s wickedly disappointing for Tennessee to not be attacking the class of 2022 in the state of Tennessee as much as they would like. But what do they have to show off at Tennessee yet, besides other coaches’ win-loss records?

    Jump forward a year though, and I do believe it’s a different conversation. So let’s let an SEC year play out so that we can know exactly what these recruits are looking at from Tennessee.

    Ryan: Yes. It’s as simple as that. It’s no doubt a concern about Heupel eight months into the job. What’s hard to tell is how much the NCAA’s investigation is negatively affecting Tennessee’s recruiting. That’s no doubt been a barrier for Heupel, but I don’t think that’s the only thing holding Tennessee back in recruiting. Heupel’s reputation was not one of a strong recruiter when he came to Tennessee and thats showing up now. The 2022 class in the state of Tennessee is one of the best ever and the Vols have just one commit. They are in the hunt for the state’s best player Walter Nolan but if they don’t land him this crop of instate recruiting is no doubt a failure. Look, I can give Heupel a pass for losing out Ty Simpson and Josiah Jordan— guys that are going to Alabama and Georgia. But losing the Wade twins to Kentucky, Isaiah Horton to Miami and Fisher Anderson to Stanford are bad losses. Those are the battles Heupel and his staff need to win to have long term success here. One positive I’ll end on, if you don’t recruit at a high level there’s two ways to still have sustained success at the college level. First, it’s great development and evaluating like Iowa and Wisconsin do. Another example is Missouri under Gary Pinkel. The second way is by having superior quarterback play like we’re seeing at Ole Miss right now. Heupel has recruited quarterbacks well since coming to Tennessee. I’ve seen enough of his scheming and play calling, if Heupel can recruit and develop quarterbacks he’ll have a great chance to elevate Tennessee’s program.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.