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VOL. 40 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 1, 2016

After the bowl rush: What lies ahead for UT sports

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This is what Bristol Motor Speedway will look like on Sep. 10 for UT vs. Virginia Tech in a stadium that will seat 150,000-plus. The single-game record is 115,109 (Notre Dame at Michigan, 2013).

-- Submitted

Don’t worry, UT fans, the 2016 football season will be here before you know it.

There is always football withdrawal after the bowl season, and spring practices are nothing like the real thing. So until the 2016 season opener against Appalachian State in Neyland Stadium on Sept. 3, we’ll have to settle for other items in which to indulge.

Such as:

  • Will UT football coach Butch Jones finish strong in recruiting?
  • Where will UT basketball finish under first-year coach Rick Barnes?
  • Can UT women’s coach Holly Warlick keep her basketball team motivated?
  • Can Tennessee baseball coach Dave Serrano keep his job?

Let’s take a look at some dates for UT fans to circle and things to consider in the coming months of 2016.

Feb. 3, National Signing Day

It’s going to be a long January as Jones and UT’s staff tries to fill their needs in the 2016 class and keep the players already committed.

At the top of the list is 6-6, 255-pound defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo, who committed to the Vols on Nov. 29 during a visit to Knoxville. Since then, the No. 1 junior college recruit in the nation has become a hot recruiting commodity.

Kongbo, a four-star recruit out of Arizona Western Community College, has received offers from Alabama and Florida State and has scheduled a visit to Alabama for Jan. 15. He’s also considering playing on the West Coast, which is nearer his home in Vancouver.

Even with Kongbo, UT’s 2016 class ranked 21st nationally by 247Sports as of Dec. 27, and Jones will be hard-pressed to match another top-10 recruiting class of the past couple of years.

Seven other SEC schools were ahead of the Vols in the 247 recruiting rankings.

Tennessee signed three junior college players in mid-December who will be January enrollees: wide receiver Jeff George of Southwestern Oklahoma State/Dodge City C.C./Leavenworth, Kan.; cornerback D.J. Henderson of Dodge City (Kan.) C.C./Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C.; and defensive tackle Alexis Johnson of Fort Scott (Kan.) C.C./Mount Zion High, Jonesboro, Ga.

Freshman defensive back Marquill Osborne of William Amos Hough High in Cornelius, N.C., will be a January enrollee after signing with the Vols on Dec. 18.

Another potential early enrollee is four-star quarterback Jarrett Guarantano of Bergen Catholic High in Oradell, N.J.

March 7-Apr. 12, UT Spring football

Tennessee’s quest to win the SEC East – which many consider a very realistic goal for 2016 – begins with the start of spring football March 7.

The Vols will have five practices before Spring Break (March 17-21) and a total of 14 practices leading up to the April 12 DISH Orange and White Game (3 p.m.) at Neyland Stadium.

Unlike last year, the Vols won’t be undergoing a change at offensive coordinator because Mike DeBord probably isn’t going anywhere. Jones hired DeBord on Jan. 6, 2015 to replace Zach Azzani, who was hired as the Miami Dolphins’ wide receiver coach.

For better or worse, DeBord tweaked the mechanics of starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs during spring practice last year.

Dobbs had his inconsistencies with his passing in 2015, but clearly was the team’s most valuable player and team leader on the offensive side. That won’t change in 2016.

UT will seek to solidify Dobbs’ backup during spring practices. Guarantano, a dual-threat quarterback, is expected to make a run at the backup’s job held by freshman Quinten Dormady, who could opt to transfer.

The Vols should again have a strong rushing attack – they were second in the SEC in 2015 at 223.5 yards per game – especially if Alvin Kamara returns for his junior season alongside leading rusher Jalen Hurd, a junior in 2016.

Kamara is eligible for the NFL Draft and considering the move.

UT could have its best offensive line in several years. Right guard Dylan Wiesman is back after earning All-SEC honors, and starting left guard Jashon Robertson and center Coleman Thomas return. Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, who earned All-SEC honors, will be the big loss on the line.

The Vols have plenty of receivers, if they can stay healthy, eligible, and play up to expectations.

Defensively, the Vols return their front four intact led by sophomore end Derek Barnett of Brentwood Academy, who was chosen to the All-SEC second team defense by coaches for the second consecutive year.

There could be some big gaps to fill in the back seven if cornerback Cameron Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin forgo their senior seasons for the NFL.

Look for UT’s coaches to give backups and newcomers the majority of reps this spring. They know what the starters can do.

March 9-13, SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament

Where will the Vols be seeded in the SEC Tournament?

Devon Baulkman looks to pass against Tennessee State’s Darreon Reddick during the Vols’ win against the Tigers this week. First-year coach Rick Barnes’s Vols will likely struggle this season, with a break-even conference record perhaps serving as an unofficial goal.

-- Tim Gangloff/Cal Sport Media Via Ap Images

Barnes is working with a guard-heavy lineup, and a .500 finish in the SEC would be a positive. A .500 overall record wouldn’t be surprising.

Barring a spectacular run in the SEC tournament, the Vols’ best hope for more postseason will be the NIT, not the NCAA. Otherwise, the season could end at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, site of the SEC Tournament.

This won’t be a quick rebuild for Barnes, either.

One lineup Barnes used pre-holidays consisted of four senior starters: guards Kevin Punter Jr. and Devon Baulkman and forwards Armani Moore and Derek Reese.

Barnes signed five players during the November early signing period: 6-2 guard Kwe Parker and 6-6 forward Jalen Johnson of Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, N.C./Wade, N.C.; 6-7, 230-pound forward Grant Williams of Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C.; 6-2 point guard Jordan Bone of The Ensworth School in Nashville; and 6-8 forward John Fulkerson of The Christ School in Arden, N.C./Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett.

Bone is the brother of former UT guard Josh Bone.

UT also should get point guard Lamonte Turner for next season. Turner is currently enrolled and redshirting after being declared academically ineligible for 2015-16.

March 25-April 5, NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

OK, so the SEC Women’s tournament is March 2-6 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Tennessee women’s team has far bigger goals than the SEC.

Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick is trying to get her team back to what it hasn’t been since 2008, a contender for a national championship.

-- Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

The Lady Vols want to end an NCAA Final Four drought dating to its 2008 national championship, but based on early performances, the drought may continue.

Warlick has had motivational issues with this year’s team, and that’s not very Lady Vol-ish. It was never a problem with Warlick’s predecessor, legendary coach Pat Summit.

In a Dec. 2 game against East Tennessee State, Warlick fumed over her team’s lack of emotion during the first half, lit into the group during a timeout, and turned the coaching duties over to her assistants in the second half. Tennessee, which trailed at one stage of the second quarter, scored 52 points in the second half and won 85-49 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

UT’s low point came four days later in a 57-43 loss to unranked Virginia Tech at Thompson-Boling Arena. The 43 points was the fewest single-game total in program history, and the Lady Vols lost for the first time at home to an unranked team in 44 games, a streak dating back to 2012.

Due to injuries, UT started the season with six available players, and it had seven for the game against Virginia Tech. The Lady Vols didn’t score in the last 6 minutes, 27 seconds. It was a stunning collapse.

And after a 69-55 loss at then-No. 15 Stanford on Dec. 16, Warlick said: “To say we need a sense of urgency is an understatement.”

Warlick’s team bounced back three days later with a 53-50 win at Oregon State, was heavily favored against Stetson Dec. 30, and begins its SEC season Jan. 4 at Missouri.

Third-year sophomore guard Diamond DeShields and senior forward Bashaara Graves are All-SEC caliber players – both were chosen to the 50-player 2016 Naismith Trophy Player of the Year Watch List – and they have other solid players around them. Just not enough right now.

While most of the buzz on talk radio is UT football and some men’s basketball, the Lady Vols and Warlick have gotten some airtime due to the team’s occasional lackluster play.

Warlick’s job isn’t at stake this season. Everybody knew her difficult task when she replaced Summit. But the program has slipped in Warlick’s four years as coach, and the Lady Vols could use a good run in the 2016 NCAA Women’s tournament.

April 28-30, NFL Draft

UT’s three most probable entries for the 2016 NFL Draft are Reeves-Maybin, Sutton, and Kamara. All have submitted paperwork to the NFL Draft Committee in order to receive an approximate evaluation of their chances of being drafted.

Reeves-Maybin, former Clarksville Northeast High standout, led the Vols in tackles (99 regular season) and tackles for loss (13) and was chosen to the All-SEC second team in 2015. Listed at 6-1, 230 pounds, NFL teams would like to see a bigger Reeves-Maybin, perhaps at 235 or 240 pounds.

While Sutton flourished as a punt returner in 2015, his performance at cornerback didn’t match that of 2014. Don’t put it all on Sutton. Injuries put the Vols’ secondary in a pinch and the unit struggled.

Sutton has good size (6-1, 190) for a cornerback and instincts that can’t be taught.

He led the nation in punt return average (18.7 yards in regular season) and was a Sporting News first-team All-American, so that only adds to his draft stock.

Kamara proved to be a multi-purpose threat for the Vols as a runner, pass receiver and punt returner.

His role grew throughout the 2015 season and could continue if he returns for 2016. He was second on the team in rushing yards (645) and catches (31) and returned six punts – one for a 50-yard TD.

Kamara started his college career at Alabama, was redshirted in 2013 and eventually kicked off the team, but he put those troubles behind him after a year of junior college and another in Knoxville. His size (5-11, 210 pounds) and skill set is attractive for NFL teams.

May 20-June 8, NCAA Women’s Softball Tournament

If Tennessee’s softball team doesn’t reach the Women’s College World Series, co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly would be the first to say the team didn’t reach its goal.

Outfielder Shaliyah Geathersa, a junior from Chattanooga, has started 57 or 58 games at Tennessee and is one of the veterans who could lead her team to a national championship this year.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

NCAA Regionals are May 20-22; Super Regionals are May 26-29; and the WCWS is June 2-8 in Oklahoma City.

The Lady Vols went 44-7 last season and reached the WCWS, where they went 0-2 with losses to Florida and Auburn. They have talent returning and impact freshmen.

Seniors Erin Gabriel, Rainey Gaffin and Gretchen Aucoin will combine with freshmen Matty Moss and Bria Bush to make up Tennessee’s pitching staff. Karen Weekly, who coaches the pitchers, plans to use all five during the 2016 season.

Gaffin (17-4, 2.17 ERA) became UT’s top player during its run to the WCWS. The Thornton, Colo., native also played outfield and hit .315, was second on the team in hits (58) and runs scored (46), and was a second-team NFCA All-American.

Other top returnees are sophomore shortstop Meghan Gregg, senior catcher Lexi Overstreet, and junior outfielder Shaliyah Geathers.

During the fall exhibition season, six newcomers hit .375 or better as Tennessee went 8-0 and outscored its opponents 103-5. Granted, it wasn’t the competition UT will see this spring.

Freshman infielder Brooke Vines hit .640 with nine RBI in the fall. The native of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., was ranked the No. 7 overall recruit by Full Count Softball and is considered one of the nation’s top freshmen.

Vines, Gaffin, and Gregg were invited to attend the Jan. 2-8 selection camp for the 2016 USA Softball Women’s National Team.

May 24-29, SEC baseball tournament

Serrano enters the final year of his five-year contract with no extension, so his fate in Knoxville hinges on the 2016 season. By the time the SEC tournament starts, we should know where Serrano stands at UT.

Serrano hasn’t come close to the success he had when he led UC Irvine to the 2007 College World Series and then took Cal State Fullerton to the 2009 CWS.

In four years as the Vols’ coach, his record is 101-110, and he’s 39-78 in SEC games. The 2015 season was expected to be the year Serrano’s team made a big jump – thanks to a highly touted signing class in 2012 – but the Vols finished 24-26 after a first-round loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament.

The 2015 Major League Baseball Draft sure didn’t do Serrano any favors. Five potential returnees for 2016 were drafted and are playing pro ball: pitchers Andy Cox, Drake Owenby, and Andrew Lee, All-American outfielder Christin Stewart and shortstop A.J. Simcox.

Also taken in the 2015 draft were five UT signees: infielder/pitcher Ke’Bryan Hayes, catcher Chris Betts, infielder Trey Cabbage, pitcher Garrett Davila, and outfielder Bryant Harris.

Tennessee second baseman Nick Senzel, a junior from Farragut High School, is a 2016 Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American (by Collegiate Baseball) after being selected Most Valuable Player of the Cape Cod Summer League.

Senzel will be a marquee player on a Vols team needing to make a good postseason run to save Serrano’s job.

Sept. 10, 2016: Battle of Bristol

It’s a long, hot summer, and hours upon hours will be spent talking about the Pilot Flying J Battle of Bristol football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

A crowd of more than 150,000 is expected for the game inside Bristol Motor Speedway, and would be a record attendance for a college football game.

It’s a brilliant early-season matchup. Campuses at Tennessee and Virginia Tech are both located about 2 hours from Bristol, and although the schools are located relatively close in proximity, they’ve only played football eight times.

UT leads the series 5-3, but Virginia Tech won the last time, 37-14 in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Ticket information: www.bristolmotorspeedway.com/events_tickets/battle_at_bristol/

Tennessee will be favored in its first three games against Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, and Ohio (Sept. 17 at Neyland Stadium) before playing host to Florida on Sept. 24.

The Vols have lost 11 consecutive games to Florida. Will this be UT’s year? Wait and see. Football season will be here before you know it.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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