With Tennessee as the number one team in the college football playoff rankings, we begin this edition of the War Room as we always do. The War Room is a collective effort of notes and news gathered throughout the week by the Volquest staff. And now, it’s on with the news.
It’s game on as the Vols travel to Athens to take on Georgia in a grudge match for the SEC East crown.
And the happiest guy about playing this game might be head coach Josh Heupel. Heupel loves to compete and he loves to compete on this stage. It’s why he embraced it against Florida, against Alabama and now on a bigger stage against Georgia.
“We’ve got a big football game and, you know, we’ve already set it, it’s why you come here, it’s why want to play here,” Heupel said Wednesday on Volcalls. “You know, everybody’s eyes will be on that ball game at 3:30. It’s been fun just preparing with our guys, man. They’ve been heightened in their sense of urgency and really focused all week long.
“As a competitor, you’re only as good as your next performance, and we’ve got a big one on Saturday. Great football team. Well-coached. They’re athletic at every spot in every phase of the game. It’s gonna be a fun one to play.”
That’s been Heupel’s message all week to everyone in the program. Go play. Be aggressive and let it rip. That’s the same message they have had heard every week.
It’s fascinating to see a head coach be looser and more relaxed the bigger the game but that seems to be the case with Heupel.
Heupel’s football team is healthier this week. Kamal Hadden should be available and we think Christian Charles will be as well. So the question is how does the puzzle fit together after the play of Doneiko Slaughter and Brandon Turnage last week? Slaughter forced two turnovers. When asked his role this week, Heupel wasn’t tipping his hand.
“I love that kid. He’s gonna play a lot of football for us on Saturday. Where he lines up at, you know, he’ll go out and play at a really high level. I love his versatility. And he’s so willing to play different positions, too.”
One of the biggest challenges for Tim Banks’ defense is will be defending tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do schematically and personnel wise against those two.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart talked about stopping the Tennessee run game and how much of a priority that was, and for good reason. The Vols are averaging 4.99 yards a carry and in Heupel’s two seasons at Tennessee the Vols are 15-2 when rushing for over 150 yards. Tennessee rushed for over 200 last year and lost to Ole Miss and Purdue. Running the ball is a must for the Vol offense.
One of the biggest news items of the week was Danny White and Tennessee’s endorsement of the collectives Spyre and the Boost-her club (Lady Vol collective).
White has never been anti-collective or anti-NIL. He was not going to go against NCAA’s guidelines which said no endorsements of collectives. Tennessee, in the middle of the NCAA investigation and trying to get closure on the Jeremy Pruitt era, was not going to take any chances on upsetting the NCAA.
Once those changes came out last Thursday, White and his staff immediately went to work to get their plan together to grow the NIL space in a collaboration with the collectives and current student athletes.
Now, everyone knows the NCAA could change their rules anytime as they have been known to do, but under the current active legislation Tennessee is all in on NIL for their current student athletes.
Next we wonder when head coaches give a public endorsement.
We will begin with Daevin Hobbs as he remains the top guy on the board for the 2023 class. Hobbs will be in Athens this weekend for his official visit to Georgia. Heading into that visit, we believe Tennessee has the momentum for him.
He and Rodney Garner continue to click really well and they talk frequently throughout the week. We still have Alabama as the biggest competition, but in talking to people this week in the industry, people in Athens agree that Tennessee is the team to beat here.
Defensive line will be important both in the high school ranks along with JUCO prospects and the transfer portal. One name that has picked back up the conversation lately is Elijah Davis from the Mississippi JUCO ranks. Davis sounds like he will visit in the month of December and there is some steady optimism in this one.
There seems to be less traction with Derek Hunter and Will Whitson. Whitson loves Tennessee, but as we have mentioned, he has to finish strong in the classroom and until he does that it’s hard for any school to go too hard there.
TJ Searcy flirted with Tennessee but Florida convinced him to firm things up and so he shut things down.
California offensive lineman Tavake Tuikolovatu is someone Tennessee appears to have gone all in on and are working to get here for a visit in January. We will see if that gets set up over the next few weeks.
Stanton Ramil continues to have dialogue with Tennessee. Nothing more and nothing less. As of now, he doesn’t have a visit set up and until he does it’s just a lot of talk.
Kansas JUCO offensive tackle Keyshawn Blackstock is someone we could see visiting in the month of December. Offensive tackle remains a major area of need for this class.
Alabama running back, Khalifa Keith has been super positive about Tennessee. He has been saying he will officially visit in December but we honestly could see that getting pushed up to next week as things progress.
We are also not closing the door on Coastal Carolina running back commitment Desean Bishop. There are avenues where we see him ending up in orange. We will continue to monitor things.
Some of you have asked about the transfer portal and how many transfers Tennessee might look to take. We will believe that Tennessee will take at least four to five players from the portal. Obviously, that number is fluid, depending on how many players Tennessee loses themselves. Tennessee will look to add tight ends, offensive tackles, maybe a linebacker, and then the best available at any positions if they are top end talents.
Finally we will continue to push that Tennessee is in good shape in the 2024 class. Specifically they sit in a great spot with most of the coveted in-state players. They have such a great base led by Carson Gentle and Kaleb Beasley. Those two won’t be shy about recruiting other kids they know very well.
Tennessee is preparing for its season opener Monday night against Tennessee Tech. The biggest question of the preseason from a personnel standpoint has been the health of Josiah-Jordan James who has been rehabbing from offseason knee surgery.
James has worked his way back into taking full part in practice this week and is expected to play on Monday according to Rick Barnes.
With tip-off just a couple of days away the biggest question is going to be what does the rotation look like for Barnes. Based off practice observations and what we saw against Gonzaga it looks like eight guys are going to get defined minutes; James, Zakai Ziegler, Santiago Vescovi, Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic, Tyreke Key and Jonas Aidoo.
It feels like Jahmai Mashack (whose shot is much improved) is going to play but whether or not he has defined minutes remains to be seen. Tobe Awaka has established himself as the fourth post, and the staff loves his attitude and physicality. He’s going to have a role but probably not one to the point where he’s guaranteed a set amount of playing time every night.
Barnes has expressed some confidence in Tyreke Key being able to handle the point guard job on a part time basis, but that will still be something to keep an eye on early in the season.
Tennessee looked great against Gonzaga last week in a 99-80 exhibition win, but that didn’t stop Barnes from overseeing a harsh film session earlier this week. That should surprise no one.
On the recruiting front Rick Barnes and Justin Gainey were both in South Carolina last week to make a school visit to see 2024 guard Cam Scott, on3’s No. 14 overall ranked prospect in the Class 2024. Scott was in town for an unofficial visit for the Alabama game and is a top shelf target for the Vols in that class.
Assistant coach Rod Clark will be in Texas this weekend to watch Link Academy in action at an event. Tennessee commitment Cade Phillips plays for Link as does Tennessee target Cameron Carr.
Carr, a versatile guard, officially visited the week of the UT-Martin game and Tennessee made an impression. Carr has a ton of ties to the Kansas State program but there’s some buzz that this one is going to come down to Tennessee and Northwestern. He has also visited Louisville, Virginia and Kansas St.
Carr could make a decision very soon and sign next week.
African big man Rueben Chinyelu dropped a top-five this week that included Tennessee, Florida, Rutgers, Santa Clara and Washington State.
That’s been a difficult recruitment to follow to say the least. Tennessee, from our understanding, hasn’t had a lot of dialogue with Chinyelu recently—who attends the NBA Global Academy in Sengal—but from what we’ve picked up that’s been pretty common for everyone trying to recruit the talented but raw big man.
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