VOL. 131 | NO. 260 | Friday, December 30, 2016
What Lies Ahead for UT Athletics in 2017
BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Hey Vols fans, Happy New Year. May your 2017 year in Tennessee sports be better than your 2016 year in Tennessee sports. Perhaps, a fresh start is what we all need. Let’s face it. The Music City Bowl wasn’t where Tennessee wanted the 2016 football season to end. The Vols were picked to win the SEC East Division in preseason and floundered to an 8-4 record in the regular season, 4-4 in the SEC. Their football season was about the norm for most UT sports in 2016: average. Here are some dates to mark in hope of better things ahead in 2017...
Feb. 1: National Signing Day
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his staff need a strong finish to the 2017 recruiting class if they’re going to stay in the top 10 in national rankings.
UT enters the crucial January recruiting season ranked 10th in the nation and fifth in the SEC (as of Dec. 25) by 247Sports in its composite rankings. UT has one five-star recruit, four four stars, and 21 three stars.
Five-star offensive tackle Trey Smith of University School of Jackson is the top recruit of the class right now. He’s the nation’s No. 26 prospect, No. 5 offensive tackle, and No. 3 player in the state.
Tennessee’s four four-star recruits include defensive lineman Matthew Butler of Garner (North Carolina) Magnet High. He committed Dec. 21. Butler is UT’s 26th known commitment for the class and its sixth for the defensive line, a position of huge need in this class.
UT needs to have a good National Signing Day on Feb. 1.
Feb. 10-12: UT softball opening series
Thank goodness for Tennessee softball, which starts its season with the Eagle Round Robin tournament at Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Georgia.
If there’s one team Vols fans can count on nowadays, it’s UT’s softball team.
Tennessee co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly aren’t satisfied unless their team reaches the Women’s College World Series. Just getting to the NCAA won’t cut it with them.
Last year, UT (43-16) finished in a three-way tie for third in the SEC with a 16-7 record and advanced to the NCAA Knoxville Regional final before losing to Arizona 4-3 in eight innings. The Lady Vols finished No. 17 in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25.
UT’s key loss is outfielder/pitcher Rainey Gaffin, who suffered a fractured arm during the SEC tournament and missed the rest of her senior postseason. Gaffin hit .380 last year with five homers and 38 RBIs and went 9-3 with a 2.32 ERA in the circle.
Returning is All-SEC first-team infielder Meghan Gregg along with three players chosen to the 2016 All-Freshman team: pitcher Matty Moss, utility player Brooke Vines, and infielder Aubrey Leach.
Brooke Vines, an SEC All-Freshman Team selection a year ago, will be counted on to help Tennessee get back to the Women’s College World Series this year.
(Charles Banke/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)
Also back is outfielder Megan Geer, who was on the NFCA All-Southeast Region team along with Gaffin, Gregg and Vines.
Tennessee has made 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments in softball and last year reached the 40-win mark for the 14th consecutive year.
With 15 returning players and another solid class of freshmen, the Weeklys should have their team near the top of the SEC again and ready for another NCAA run.
Feb. 17-19: Tennessee baseball opening series
Yes, UT baseball season will be here soon as you know it, and sixth-year coach Dave Serrano’s job is on the line.
It starts Feb. 17, 18, and 19 with a three-game series at Memphis.
Serrano got a year’s extension as UT’s coach last May from outgoing athletic director Dave Hart despite the coach’s 130-138 overall record in five seasons.
With Serrano as coach, the Vols are 48-99 in SEC regular-season games, have never reached the NCAA tournament, and have never been seeded higher than 11th in the three SEC tournaments they’ve reached. UT is 0-3 in those tournament games.
Last season, UT went 29-28, got the 12th and final spot in the SEC tournament with a 9-21 record, and lost to No. 5 LSU 5-4 in the first round.
Serrano has 17 newcomers on the 2017 roster – 14 high school signees, two junior-college transfers and a graduate transfer, Reggie Southall from Southern Cal. Southall will compete for the shortstop job with 2016 starter Max Bartlett.
Tennessee’s pitching staff took a hit when left-handed starter Aaron Soto suffered an injury in the summer that required Tommy John surgery, which cost him the 2017 season.
Serrano’s son, Kyle, should return to the staff after missing most of 2016 with an injury that also required Tommy John surgery, and second baseman Jeff Moberg is back after suffering a season-ending knee injury 16 games into last season. Moberg was hitting .415 when injured.
Pitchers returning include Hunter Martin (3-3, 2.03 ERA), Eric Freeman (3-1, 3.00 ERA), Will Neely (1-3, 3.96) and Zach Warren (5-5, 4.04).
It’s a make-or-break season for Serrano, whose seat is the hottest on campus.
March 1-5: SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament
Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick can’t afford another season like 2015-16 – the 22-14 record was the program’s worst in 40 years – and she wasn’t pleased with her team’s play for much of the non-league schedule.
The Lady Vols showed a glaring lack of consistency in losses to Penn State, Virginia Tech and Texas, and were downright embarrassed in Thompson-Boling Arena by then-No. 4 Baylor, 88-66, Dec. 4.
Those four losses dropped the Lady Vols out of the Associated Press and USA Today Top 25 polls.
Tennessee bounced back with a 59-51 win over then-No. 10 Stanford on Dec. 19 and went into the Christmas break with a 110-84 win over Troy on Dec. 1.
UT, 7-4 going into the Jan. 1 SEC opener against Kentucky at Thompson-Boling, was picked to finish third in the SEC by the media behind South Carolina and Mississippi State.
That would be an improvement from last season’s 8-8 SEC record, good for a three-way tie for seventh in the league.
Four of the five starters return from last year’s roster led by 6-1 junior guard Diamond DeShields, who averaged 14.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals last year.
DeShields was on the Associated Press All-SEC second team and was a first-team preseason selection this year by the league’s coaches and media. She’s averaging 15.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.0 steals this year.
Other returning starters and their averages this year: 6-6 junior center Mercedes Russell (16 ppg, 9.2 rpg), 6-2 junior guard/forward Jaime Nared (14.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and 5-11 senior point guard Jordan Reynolds (7.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.5 apg).
UT’s only departed senior from last year’s roster was 6-2 forward Bashaara Graves (10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), but the Lady Vols are also without sophomore guard Te’a Cooper (8.6 ppg, 2.1 apg) due to a knee injury.
The Lady Vols are averaging 77.1 points per game – more than 11 points per game better than last year – but are giving up 65.1 points per game, six more than last season.
Warlick’s biggest concerns are defense, rebounding, and taking care of the basketball as her team enters the SEC season. Not to mention the Lady Vols’ lapses in effort and execution.
March 8-12: SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament
Where will the Vols be after a second season under head coach Rick Barnes when the SEC Men’s Tournament gets here?
Hopefully, better than last year, when they went 15-19 overall and 6-12 in the SEC, good for 12th place. UT made a little run in the SEC tournament with wins over Auburn and Vanderbilt before losing to LSU, 84-75.
UT was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC in a preseason media poll with only Missouri below it, and had no player chosen to the media’s first or second all-conference teams.
Junior guard Robert Hubbs III from Dyersburg is the Vols’ leading scorer through 12 games, averaging 15.5 points per game. He is the most experienced of the young Vols.
(Jerry Denham/The Ledger)
Barnes lost three of the top four scorers from last year’s roster, all seniors last season: guard Kevin Punter (22.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), forward Armani Moore (12.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg), and guard Devon Baulkman (9.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Also gone is part-time starting forward Derek Reese (3.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg), a senior last season.
Tennessee was 7-5 going into its SEC opener Thursday night at Texas A&M with losses to Chattanooga, Wisconsin, Oregon (overtime), North Carolina and Gonzaga. The Vols bounced back from the 10-point loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 18 by beating East Tennessee State University 72-68 on Dec. 22 in Johnson City.
UT has an All-SEC-caliber guard in junior Robert Hubbs III, who helped Dyer County High School reach the championship game of the Class AAA state tournament as a senior.
Hubbs averaged the team-high 15.5 points and 4.8 rebounds through the first 12 games and was shooting 88.9 percent from the foul line.
After Hubbs, the Vols feature balanced scoring, with six players averaging 8.4 points or more per game.
They are 6-5 sophomore post Grant Williams (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), 6-1 junior guard Detrick Mostella (10.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg), 6-0 redshirt freshman guard Lamonte Turner (9.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.7 apg), 6-3 sophomore guard Shembari Phillips (8.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and 6-3 freshman guard Jordan Bowden (8.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg).
Nobody questions the Vols’ effort, but the roster has limitations – particularly in the frontcourt – and it took a hit when freshman forward John Fulkerson (4.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) suffered a dislocated elbow against Lipscomb on Dec. 15 and is out until February, at least.
Also, freshman point guard Jordan Bone (9.3 ppg, 0.3 rpg) has been limited to three games with a foot injury. He started the Vols’ first two games, but began having problems as the team prepared for the Maui Invitational and played just six minutes in the loss on Nov. 21 to Wisconsin in Maui.
March-April (Dates TBA): Spring Football
UT’s competition for the starting quarterback’s job vacated by senior Joshua Dobbs heats up during spring football practices, but don’t expect for the No. 1 QB to be announced after the annual spring game.
Current sophomore Quinten Dormady and redshirted freshman Jarrett Guarantano will compete for the starting job with redshirted freshman Sheriron Jones as the third quarterback.
Dormady, 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has an edge in game experience. He played in six games as a true freshman in 2015 and played in four games in 2016.
However, the 6-4, 205-pound Guarantano is more in the mold of Dobbs, a dual-threat quarterback, than Dormady.
Also in spring practice, UT looks for depth at running back with current sophomore John Kelly taking over as the feature back in 2017 with the expected departure of Alvin Kamara to the 2017 NFL Draft.
Defensively, the Vols have plenty of needs on which to focus. The Vols allowed almost 2,000 yards in their last three regular-season games against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Linebackers pushing for bigger roles in 2017 include junior Cortez McDowell, redshirt freshman Quart’e Sapp, and freshman Daniel Bituli, who played at Nashville Christian School.
With the loss of starters Malik Foreman and Cameron Sutton in the secondary, potential newcomers playing bigger roles include freshmen Marquill Osborne, Baylen Buchanan and Nigel Warrior. Warrior was on the SEC’s All-Freshman team.
UT’s defensive front took the biggest losses with the likely departure of All-American end Derek Barnett (former Brentwood Academy standout) to the 2017 NFL Draft and the departures of starting left end Corey Vereen, starting tackle Kendal Vickers and backup left end LaTroy Lewis, all seniors in 2016.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop arrived as a much-heralded addition to the staff in 2016, but finished the regular season amid criticism for the team’s poor defensive showings. Shoop has plenty of work to do this spring, along with Jones and the rest of the staff.
June 30: Dave Hart retires
Hart announced last August he would retire as athletic director June 30, so this is a long time coming.
Tennessee should have an athletic director on board long before Hart officially retires this summer, and changes in the athletic department are inevitable.
New UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport is expected to start her job on March 1. Look for Davenport and the new AD to evaluate every sport and every coach.
Sept. 4: UT football opener
Tennessee starts the 2017 football season on a Monday (time TBA), Sept. 4, against Georgia Tech in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, future home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Georgia Tech (8-4) plays Kentucky (7-5) in the Dec. 31 TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
The Yellow Jackets beat Georgia 28-27 in the Nov. 26 regular-season finale. They were fifth in the ACC Coastal Division with a 4-4 record.
Not an easy opener for the Vols.
UT has a quick turnaround after Georgia Tech. It plays host to Indiana State on Sept. 9 at Neyland Stadium.
With the roster attrition and schedule, the Vols aren’t a lock to improve on the eight-win regular season of 2016.
After Indiana State, UT plays at Florida; hosts UMass; hosts Georgia; hosts South Carolina; plays at Alabama; plays at Kentucky; hosts Southern Miss; plays at Missouri; hosts LSU; and hosts Vanderbilt.
Will the Vols be in the Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game at Merdedes-Benz Stadium?
Don’t count on it. Not after what we saw in 2016.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.