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VOL. 132 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 3, 2017

Busiest Season for Sports Hits Big Orange Country

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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It’s the busiest time of the year for Tennessee athletics. There’s even some football to whet your gridiron appetite.

The Vols begin spring football practices March 21, and the DISH Orange & White Game is April 22 at Neyland Stadium. By then, much will have happened in Big Orange Nation.

Here’s a look at what lies ahead for the Vols and their fans.

SEC WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT

Tennessee’s seeding for the NCAA tournament depends on its showing in the SEC Tournament, which started Wednesday, March 1, and goes through Sunday in Greenville, S.C.

The Lady Vols (19-10, 10-6 SEC) are seeded No. 5 in the tournament and played Thursday against No. 12 Alabama.

Fifth-year UT coach Holly Warlick has her team – which relies heavily on junior center Mercedes Russell and junior guards Jaime Nared and Diamond DeShields – on a three-game SEC winning streak and recently upset No. 2 Mississippi State 82-64 in Starkville, Miss.

The victory denied Mississippi State (27-3, 13-3) a share of its first SEC championship and marked the Lady Vols’ fourth victory over a top-10 team this year.

Tennessee hasn’t been to the NCAA Final Four since 2008 when they won their eighth national championship under legendary coach Pat Summitt. Warlick, Summitt’s longtime assistant, got the Lady Vols to the NCAA Final Eight each of the past two seasons, but can they take the next step this year? Tough to say, considering the ups and downs of the regular season.

Warlick landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation for 2017, according to several services. Included in the four-player class is 5-foot-7 point guard Anastasia Hayes of Murfreesboro Riverdale. With the nucleus of this year’s team returning along with the highly touted 2017 class, Warlick has the makings of a formidable team next season.

SEC MEN’S TOURNAMENT

For weeks and weeks, we heard talk of second-year UT men’s coach Rick Barnes having an NCAA bubble team.

Not anymore. Barnes has a team on the NIT bubble.

Tennessee (15-15, 7-10 SEC) goes into the final game of the regular season 10th in the league. LSU ended a school record 15-game losing streak by defeating the Vols 92-82 on Wednesday, March 1, and the Vols finish at home against Alabama on Saturday, March 4.

The SEC Tournament is March 8-12 in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and the Vols are trying to avoid a dreaded opening-day game awarded to the league’s lowest four teams.

UT’s chances for the NCAA bid evaporated with losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina last week. 

The 67-56 loss to Vanderbilt at Thompson-Boling Arena was the low point of the season. With stakes still high, the Vols were a no-show against the Commodores.

Barnes had no explanation for his team’s lackluster performance. Early in the season, the Vols drew praise for their gritty play with a limited roster. Now, their lack of consistency is glaring.

Grant Williams, a 6-5 freshman from Charlotte, N.C., has been the highlight for UT. Williams is averaging 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds going into the last week of the season and should be on the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

However, UT’s guard play has been suspect, particularly at point guard. Freshman Jordan Bone of Nashville’s Ensworth High appeared to be Barnes’ choice at point, but had two points in 14 minutes in the loss to Vanderbilt and four points in 10 minutes in the loss to South Carolina.

UT SOFTBALL

UT’s softball team (13-2) begins its home schedule with six games in the Tennessee Invitational, which runs through Sunday, March 5, at Lee Stadium.

The Vols won their first 13 games before losing back-to-back games last weekend to Utah (3-0) and Texas (4-2) in the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, California.

UT freshman pitcher Caylan Arnold started her college career by throwing 29 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. Her 29th came in the seventh inning of a 2-1 victory Feb. 23 over defending national champion Oklahoma.

Arnold’s streak ended with a 3-0 loss to Utah on Feb. 24 when she gave up an earned run in the first inning. Arnold (5-2, 1.14 ERA) also was the losing pitcher in a 3-0 loss to Texas the following day when she gave up three earned runs on three hits in one inning.

Sophomore Matty Moss (7-0, 1.37) combines with Arnold as UT’s top two pitchers.

Tennessee goes into its tournament with eight batters hitting .333 or better: Taylor Rowland (.333), C.J. McClain (.345), Jenna Holcomb (.359), Abby Lockman (.367), Megan Geer (.378), Aubrey Leach (.400), Brooke Vines (.417), and Meghan Gregg (.489).

TENNESSEE BASEBALL

The Vols’ baseball team (6-1) brings a five-game winning streak into the three-game home opening series against Norfolk State March 3-5.

After winning two of three at Memphis Feb. 17-19, Tennessee went 4-0 on a California road trip last week with wins over Loyola Marymount (8-4), Seton Hall (12-5), San Diego State (8-4), and UC Irvine (10-9).

UT coach Dave Serrano will be in an underdog’s role (again) as he begins a pivotal sixth season in the SEC. The Vols were picked to finish sixth in the SEC Eastern Division in the preseason coaches’ poll, and no UT players were chosen to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC first or second teams.

This is a make-or-break year for Serrano, and we won’t find out much about the 2017 Vols until the SEC season begins March 17-20 with a three-game series against South Carolina at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Serrano might have his best pitching staff since arriving at Tennessee, and it includes freshmen Garrett Stallings (1-0, 2.00 ERA, 9 innings) of Grassfield High in Chesapeake, Virginia, and Zach Linginfelter (0-0, 5.59 ERA, 9.2 innings) of Sevier County High. Returnees to the staff include Hunter Martin (2-0, 4.50 ERA, 10 innings) and Will Neely (1-0, 5.40 ERA, 8.1 innings). Kyle Serrano, the coaches’ son, is still finishing up rehab from Tommy John surgery, but will be a factor this year.

Tennessee has seven players hitting .360 or better going into their home opening series: Jeff Moberg (.464), Andre Lipcius (.423), Dom Thornton (.421), Jordan Rodgers (.406), Justin Ammons (.393), Pete Derkay (.391), and Reggie Southall (.360).

NFL COMBINE

Six former UT players are in Indianapolis this weekend for the NFL Scouting Combine, which runs through Monday, March 6.

They are defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara, quarterback Joshua Dobbs, wide receiver Josh Malone, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and cornerback/safety Cameron Sutton.

Barnett is the highest-rated Vol at No. 22 by NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein, who published a “38 Special: Instant-impact players in the 2017 NFL Draft.”

About Barnett, Zierlein writes: “Strong edge presence with NFL-caliber hand usage and play strength. Barnett is one of the most productive defensive linemen to come out of the SEC in quite some time despite lacking the length and twitch that teams look for off the edge. His awareness and play straits should keep him near the action and he has the talent to step into a starting base end spot right away. There could be coordinators who view him as an early down, outside backer in a 3-4 with the ability to put his hand in the ground on sub packages.”

Zierlein has Kamara at No. 35 and writes: “Ascending, competitive runner who has flashed explosive NFL talent at various times over the last two seasons. A committed runner with excellent balance who finds yardage that isn’t blocked for him. While he has never logged 20 carries in a single game, he has the talent to play on all three downs if he can prove his durability.”

Dobbs, whose stock spiked with his showing in the Senior Bowl, will get added exposure before the April 27-29 NFL Draft. He was one of seven college quarterbacks who will be featured in the eighth season of Jon Gruden’s QB Camp Series, a signature element of ESPN’s annual pre-NFL Draft coverage.

The other quarterbacks are Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

Peterman spent three years at Tennessee (2012-14) and left when UT coach Butch Jones opted to go with Dobbs, whose dual-threat QB skills was a better fit for the Vols’ offense.

SPRING FOOTBAL

Jones has an overhauled coaching staff as he goes into his fifth spring practice with the Vols, so it’s a chance for the group to mesh along with their players.

Zach Azzanni is the most recent departure. He left his position as wide receivers coach last Wednesday for the same position with the Chicago Bears. He’s the sixth staff change at UT this offseason.

It’s not a surprise Azzanni left. He was at Tennessee for four seasons, starting as recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach in 2013-14 before being promoted to passing game coordinator in 2015.

When offensive coordinator Mike DeBord left for the same position at Indiana, Azzanni was bypassed for the coordinator opening awarded to Larry Scott, who got a promotion from tight ends coach/special teams coordinator. Azzanni moves on to a better job in the NFL after reaching his ceiling at Tennessee.

Jones’ staff shakeup shows he wasn’t satisfied with 2016, and nor should be he. The Vols fell short of their goal of an SEC East Division title and went 9-4 with a win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.

Offensive line coach Don Mahoney and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez weren’t retained after four years at their respective positions, and Steve Stripling was moved to an administrative role (director of football program development) after serving as associate head coach and defensive line coach for four years. DeBord was expected to retire before getting the opportunity at Indiana.

UT’s other moves beside Scott’s promotion to offensive coordinator have Brady Hoke taking over as coach of the defensive line, Charlton Warren to coach the defensive backs, Walt Wells to coach offensive line, and Mike Canales to coach quarterbacks, a role DeBord held.

It appears Jones made an upgrade in his staff, but we’ll see in this fall.

Hoke has been a college coach since 1981 and was head coach at Ball State (2003-08), San Diego State (2009-10), and Michigan (2011-14). He was fired after his last season at Michigan and was fired as Oregon’s defensive coordinator at the end of the 2016 season. Despite the firings, Hoke is a good hire for a defensive line position.

Canales has three decades of collegiate coaching experience and is noted for developing quarterbacks, including NFL star Philip Rivers at North Carolina State (2001-02). Warren, who spent the last two seasons at North Carolina, is expected to solidify a secondary that allowed 230.7 passing yards per game and was subject to explosive plays in 2016.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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