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    Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

    Managing editor Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.

    “General feeling on Cade Mays getting freed” – Ben Mandrell

    Ben: I feel good about Cade Mays being 100 percent freed by Tennessee’s season opener next weekend against South Carolina. Jeremy Pruitt announced on Thursday following practice that Mays had won his waiver appeal with the NCAA, but still needed to be cleared by the SEC in order to be immediately eligible to play this season. I’m confident that Greg Sankey will make the right decision here and allow Mays to play this year for the Vols.

    “With all the OL depth this year, any talk of guys working as a swing tackle or H-back/Fullback for heavy packages?” – Garrett Miller

    “Chris Akporoghene is an interesting guy and I’ve seen him running with the two’s at guard. How has he progressed in his time at UT? Any chance they try and work him at center down the line?” — Garrett Miller

    Ben: The first three names that come to mind in regards to an h-back/fullback role are Princeton Fant, K’Rojhn Calbert and Cooper Mays. This would have been the role that Austin Pope would have played in addition to lining up as a tight end, but he’s had a setback with his back injury and won’t be playing any time soon. So, that leaves Fant, Calbert and Mays. I believe Fant will slide into Pope’s role, and is athletic enough to play multiple spots within the offense. I throw Calbert’s name into the discussion because we’ve seen him line up in h-back role before, as well as defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus, who could also switch over to offense for a play if Tennessee needed him to. I think there’s a small possibility you could see the younger Mays brother as well. He’s athletic enough to do so.

    As for Chris Akporoghene, I do believe he’s coming along fine in his development, but it appears that he was running with the two’s as a result of some guys missing time due to positive COVID tests or contact tracing. He could be the backup left guard, but I think Tennessee would slide Cade Mays over to fill Trey Smith’s shoes if they needed to. On the right side, Akporoghene is behind Jerome Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, Riley Locklear, Mays and Darnell Wright. Akporoghene could possibly move to center, but Tennessee will likely continue to rep him at guard. Carvin or Cooper Mays is Tennessee’s future center once Brandon Kennedy finishes up his career.

    “What is your level of concern from 1-10 that game will be postponed due to quarantine issues based on your knowledge of COVID at UT and USCjr?” – Warren Snead

    Ben: Right now it’s not very high. Maybe a one or a two on your scale. But that’s as of eight days before the game. As we’ve seen with COVID, things could change at a moment’s notice. Pruitt mentioned on Thursday that as of this moment, nobody will miss the South Carolina game due to COVID related issues. We also haven’t heard about any issues the Gamecocks have run into either. Looks like we’ll almost definitely have kick off next Saturday night in Colombia.

    “Should we be concerned about the season considering the number of players having quarantine?” — SirPentious

    Ben: Yes. Tennessee hasn’t been able to have as physical of a fall camp due to players missing time as it relates to COVID, and we’ve seen that already really hurt teams that went through similar issues. Navy chose not to have a physical camp because of its concerns and proceeded to get destroyed by BYU. Pruitt stated on The Paul Finebaum Show Wednesday afternoon that there will be some players playing against South Carolina that haven’t had the chance to block or tackle in live scrimmages. That is definitely a concern.

    “With COVID, contract tracing policies in Knox County, and lack of practice time, how should fans judge Pruitt’s third season? If it is less successful than last year, do we have concerns around Pruitt or does he get a pass this year due to the circumstances?” — Michael Miller

    Ben: This is a question suited for the end of the year, to where we can look back in hindsight and see the circumstances surrounding each game. But I do think there may be a game or two to where Pruitt shouldn’t be judged as harshly as he would be during a typical season. This season is going to present challenges that nobody can control, especially a football coach. Results, especially losses, should be responded to with context, assuming that COVID does impact some of the games.

    “With Pruitt saying he’s only got 3 or 4 scholarship receivers due to COVID right now, doesn’t it seem a little counterproductive to move Dee Beckwith to running back instead of receiver?” – Buck Nasty

    “How do we feel about moving Dee Beckwith to RB?” — Mo #GBO

    “How much depth at WR do you expect back for SC, as long as we don’t lose any more to COVID-19 and contact tracing before then?” — J-Carv

    Ben: I don’t think it’s counterproductive. All of the wide receivers are going to be available for the South Carolina game unless something pops up. Plus, Dee Beckwith has been getting some work at wide receiver during fall camp. He’s also gotten work at the tight end position and at running back, which is why I like Beckwith getting some run in the backfield. He’s a Swiss army knife that is going to be a real weapon for Tennessee because of his versatility.

    I expect all of the wide receivers to be available. Especially after Pruitt stated Thursday that he doesn’t expect anybody to miss the South Carolina game due to COVID related issues.

    “How worried should we be about what Jeremy said to Paul Finebaum? Are the fans taking the SC and Mizzou game too lightly?” – Samuel Smith

    “Are we going to be close to fielding a full team next Saturday? And can we give the fighting Muschamps more than they want?” — NCVOL79

    Ben: I answered the first question earlier, but it’s definitely a concern. You have to play with physicality in the SEC in order to be successful, and Tennessee hasn’t been able to do that this fall camp. For that reason alone, I do believe fans are taking South Carolina and Missouri too lightly, especially the Gamecocks. Tennessee is more talented than Carolina, but if the Vols don’t play with physicality, they’ll lose. South Carolina is experienced enough to take advantage of that situation, especially up front along their offensive line.

    “How will it look with Cade and Cooper on the field in a jumbo package this season?” — MochaJones10

    Ben: Erotic. Tennessee’s entire offensive line in a jumbo package will be erotic. But it’ll be really cool to see Cade and Cooper in the game at the same time. Their father played at Tennessee, and now both of them are playing for the Vols at the same time in the same game. It doesn’t get any better than that.

    “What is your guess on a “big fish” we may land this cycle?” – Stevie Duckett

    Ben: Amarius Mims would be my guess. Tennessee has faded slightly with Smael Mondon, but the Vols are still battling it out with Georgia for Mims. He really likes the Vols and if Tennessee can have some early season success, it could push itself over the edge for the five-star offensive tackle.

    “Who will be your favorite player on this year’s football team?” – Triple O

    Ben: How can it not be Trey Smith? The way he represents the University of Tennessee off the field, the way he bullies opponents, the way he leads his teammates — it’s an easy decision for me. Enjoy this last season of Trey Smith, Vol fans. Players like him don’t come around often.

    “Here’s an easy one.. I’m in Montana, how’s the weather treating you guys down there? We are covered in smoke from all the wildfires here.” — @Chris1971McGee

    Ben: So sorry that you’re having to deal with the wildfires there. We’ve been sending positive thoughts out to the west coast from Knoxville. The weather here has been nice. It’s starting to cool off just in time for football season.

      Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

      It hasn’t been the smoothest of fall camps for Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee football team.

      At one point, up to 48 players were missing from practice due to COVID-19 related issues and injury. It’s led to players who will play for Tennessee early on in the season being unable to have had the chance to block and tackle in scrimmages, Pruitt said on the Paul Finebaum show Wednesday.

      Tennessee did take a step in the right direction on Thursday, however, despite struggling to scrimmage over the course of fall camp. Thursday afternoon’s practice was the most-attended practice since the third practice of fall camp, Pruitt told reporters over Zoom.

      “We had an opportunity Tuesday to go out there and get a lot of specialty situations going,” Pruitt said. “Felt like with the number of guys we had back, we had some really good work. Today we went back and kind of approached it a little bit like game week, started working some on South Carolina. A lot of special teams. We’ve had a lot of guys out, so doing special teams is obviously gotta be a premium for us, with the guys that have had to bump around.

      “So got some good work today. Seemed like we had a lot of juice out there, so that was good to see. Got a lot of guys back. It was the most guys we’ve had on the practice field since the third practice of camp. So it’s good to see guys out there. Got a lot of guys that have to get a lot of work the next nine days. And they’ve got to put in time to do it. It was two good practices in a row.”

      Two of the players back at practice are key to the Vols’ success in 2020. Sophomore offensive tackle Wanya Morris, who was named to the Preseason All-SEC Coaches Second Team on Thursday, missed much of fall camp due to quarantine. As did senior defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon. Both were in attendance for Thursday’s practice.

      “Both of those guys have been hit with the quarantine,” Pruitt said. “Wanya twice. So he practiced today. Think it’s the second time he’s practiced in 23 days. And Aubrey was out there today. So they’ve got a lot of work to do. Hopefully we can get some plays out of them next Saturday. That will be determined next week.”

      Pruitt doesn’t expect any of his two-deep to miss next Saturday’s season opener against South Carolina due to positive COVID tests or contact tracing. As of right now, the Vols “would have everybody” available. Kick off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

        Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

        Tennessee senior tight end Austin Pope won’t be seeing the football field anytime soon, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt revealed Thursday afternoon following practice.

        “Austin is not going to play right now,” Pruitt told reporters on a Zoom call.

        Pruitt previously said earlier in fall camp that Pope was ahead of schedule as the Knoxville native worked back from offseason back surgery. Pope announced on July 16 that he was recovering from back surgery to repair a herniated disc.

        “He’s been out (on the practice field) every day,” Pruitt told the media at the time following Tennessee’s third practice of fall camp. “He continues to improve. If he continues to improve like he has the last five weeks, he should be ready to play for the opener.”

        Pope previously missed part of UT’s offseason a year ago after having surgery on his back. He’s been hampered by injuries for most of his Tennessee career, with the most recent injury before this current back issue being a partially torn hamstring during the 2019 season.

        “Sometimes life doesn’t always go the way we plan it,” Pope said in a post on Twitter. “I’ve had hard times and challenges in my life, so this is nothing new to me. I recently have been dealing with a lot of nerve pain coming from my low back. I went to get an MRI Monday morning and the results were not what I expected. Doc told me I herniated yet another disc in my back, this time being at L3L4.

        “I’ve been very down and disappointed because I already had back surgery two years ago for a different disc. I had surgery this morning and am recovering at home right now. I really would appreciate any support in these tough times. I love this game, my teammates, and my coaches and I will do anything to help this program succeed. Prayers would be appreciated. Minor setback for a major comeback.”

        The 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end emerged as a key part of Tennessee’s offense last season as a run blocker. Pope played in all of UT’s 13 games and made 11 starts, totaling four catches for 21 yards through the air. His blocking ability proved invaluable, and he was used both as a tight end and H-back throughout the season.

        Pope joined the Vols in the 2016 class out of the Christian Academy of Knoxville and redshirted his freshman year. He appeared in nine games in the 2017 season and made one start, catching two passes for nine yards. As a redshirt junior in 2018, Pope played in 11 games and made two starts, catching a 55-yard reception against Florida.

        In his Tennessee career, Pope has appeared in 33 games and has totaled seven receptions for 85 yards.

        Outside of Pope, the Vols have very little returning experience at tight end. Redshirt freshman Jackson Lowe entered the transfer portal on Wednesday, leaving redshirt junior Princeton Fant, redshirt sophomore Jacob Warren and redshirt freshman Sean Brown in competition for the job. Redshirt senior Jordan Allen switched to the position in the spring as well.

        “The tight end position, we are working several guys there and it is a competitive spot,” Pruitt said Thursday. “There is not much difference in the guys. How they go about their business every day, how they practice and compete, what kind of habits they have created. They control it. We want to play the best players. We have got some guys that are competing hard there to do that.”

        “Most of those guys have played very little football for us. They have to work on their consistency. They have to be able to block in the C-area. They have to play fast. They have to be good communicators. That is one position you really need to be instinctive, to have a feel. We ask the tight ends to do a lot.. Somebody has to separate themselves.”

        Tennessee’s season opener is just over a week away. The Vols will begin year three under Jeremy Pruitt against South Carolina in Columbia. Kick off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

          Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt met with the media Thursday afternoon following practice and revealed that Vols offensive lineman Cade Mays had won his appeal with the NCAA, though Mays still needs to be cleared by the SEC before he becomes immediately eligible.

          Pruitt discussed with the media his thoughts on Mays’ chances of being cleared by the NCAA, as well as how many of his players are currently participating in practice as the season opener approaches. Tennessee’s third-year head coach also discussed his thoughts on his defense’s pass rush, as well as the current situation at tight end.

          Here’s everything Pruitt had to say following practice on Thursday:

            (Photo courtesy of 247Sports)

            Tennessee offensive lineman Cade Mays has won his appeal and has been granted immediate eligibility, pending approval from the SEC, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said

            “Today we heard back from the NCAA and they approved Cade’s appeal,” Pruitt said following practice. “This has always been a two-step practice. The next thing is the SEC, but it’s good that our governing body decided to allow him to play.

            “Now we go to the SEC. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Greg (Sankey) about it. I know this from the pandemic, Greg Sankey has done a great job from a leadership standpoint with everyone in the conference. His No. 1 thing has been the protection of the players, putting our student-athletes first. I have a lot of confidence in the outcome.”

            Mays was originally denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Now that he has won his appeal, he must away clearance at the conference level.

            “I’m not exactly sure on all of the NCAA rules with transfers,” Pruitt said. “We might be the only conference, or they might all be this way when it comes to conference-to-conference transfers, but I do know the SEC in the past has not allowed that, so this would be a wave through the SEC.”

            Mays joined his little brother, Cooper, on campus for the spring semester after Tennessee officially announced the addition of the oldest Mays brother on Jan. 9. The younger Mays brother signed with the Vols during the early signing period as a four-star center out of Knoxville Catholic High School. Cade Mays played at Knoxville Catholic as well, but signed with Georgia out of high school following the firing of Butch Jones. Mays was once committed to the Vols but decommitted prior to Jones’ firing.

            Mays was ranked the No. 22 overall player in the class of 2018 according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. He was considered the No. 1 player in the state of Tennessee and the No. 3 offensive tackle in the country.

            At Georgia, Mays started six games at right guard, two at right tackle, two at left guard, and one at left tackle as a sophomore this past season, and he even played at center in the Bulldogs’ match-up with Missouri. Mays played in all 14 games this season after playing in 11 of 14 games as a true freshman a season ago. He was named to the coaches’ All-SEC Freshman team in 2018 and was a Freshman All-American as well.

            Cade and Cooper’s father, Kevin Mays, played for Tennessee from 1991-1994. He was an All-SEC guard and offensive captain in 1994.

            Tennessee is scheduled to kick off its season on Sept. 26 against South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. ET. The home opener for the Vols is scheduled for Oct. 3 against Missouri.

              (Photo via Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics)

              Five Tennessee Vols were named to the 2020 Preseason Coaches All-SEC football teams, the conference announced on Thursday.

              Senior offensive lineman Trey Smith and kicker Brent Cimaglia were named to the All-SEC Coaches First Team, while sophomore offensive lineman Wanya Morris and sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o were named to the All-SEC Second Team. Junior cornerback Bryce Thompson was named to the All-SEC Third Team.

              Tennessee’s five selections were its most since having eight players named to the preseason all-conference teams prior to the 2016 season, according to Tennessee’s press release.

              Here’s the rest of the press release from Tennessee, detailing the players that were selected:

              For Smith, Thursday’s announcement added to an already impressive list of preseason accolades that includes multiple first-team All-America honors as well as being named to a handful of national award preseason watch lists. Smith was a first-team All-SEC selection by the media and coaches after anchoring the Vols’ offensive line in 2019. The Jackson, Tennessee, native also won the 2019 Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award and took home the inaugural Fritz Pollard Trophy after a dominant junior season. Smith, a potential first-round pick, decided to forego the 2020 NFL Draft to return to Tennessee for his senior season.

              Cimaglia has also garnered some well-deserved preseason attention after one best seasons ever by a Tennessee kicker last year. The senior drilled 23 of his 27 field goal attempts last season, including two from 50-plus yards, to earn second-team All-SEC honors. Cimaglia also connected on all 35 extra point attempts and was 9-of-11 on kicks of 40 or more yards. The Nashville native was a 2019 Lou Groza Award semifinalist and was also named to the 2020 Lou Groza Award Preseason Watch List.

              Morris will look to build on a solid freshman campaign that saw him earn Freshman All-SEC team honors as well as 247Sports True Freshman All-America recognition. The former 5-star recruit started 12 of UT’s 13 games at left tackle in 2019, helping the Vols close the season with six consecutive wins.

              To’o To’o was one of the top freshman defensive players in the country last season and finished second on the team with 72 tackles, including five tackles for loss. His 72 tackles ranked second among SEC freshmen and fourth among FBS freshmen.

              The Sacramento, California, native was named to the 2019 SEC All-Freshman team as well as Freshman All-America teams selected by The Athletic and 247Sports. With the departure of senior linebacker Daniel Bituli, To’o To’o is expected to take over as the leader of Tennessee’s defense this season. He has been named to preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award and Bednarik Award.

              Thompson has been the Vols’ top corner for each of the past two seasons, racking up 66 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, 15 pass breakups and six interceptions during his two years with the program. The Irmo, South Carolina, native did not allow a single touchdown in 325 coverage snaps last season according to PFF College. Thompson also tied the school record for interceptions in a game by picking off three passes in the first half of UT’s 30-7 win over UAB.

              Tennessee is scheduled to begin its season on Sept. 26 with a road trip to South Carolina. The Vols will return home a week later to face Missouri in the home opener against on Oct. 3.