VOL. 133 | NO. 10 | Friday, January 12, 2018
Link on UT
After Disaster of 2017, New Year Looking Good for Vols
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Vol Nation should celebrate. It’s a new year. It’s got to be better than 2017. Tennessee athletics had a bad year, one of the worst ever. It was rough for fans, alumni and boosters.
Senior shortstop Meghan Gregg is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and an NSBC All-America selection. (File photograph by Jerry Denham | The Ledger)
Need a reminder? Tennessee football was historically bad, and Butch Jones got fired with two games left in his fifth season.
Then-athletic director John Currie failed in his search for Jones’ replacement and was put on leave Dec. 1 by UT chancellor Beverly Davenport. Phillip Fulmer, fired as UT’s coach in 2008 and runner-up to Currie for the athletic director’s job earlier in 2017, was hired as the Vols’ AD.
Other shortcomings in UT sports paled alongside with football:
• Tennessee’s 2016-17 women’s basketball team in fell short of expectations.
• UT’s men didn’t get to the NCAA for the second consecutive year under basketball coach Rick Barnes.
• Baseball continued its miserable run, and coach Dave Serrano resigned before the last series of the season.
• The once-proud men’s tennis program had its second consecutive losing season, and Currie fired coach Sam Winterbotham.
• Volleyball’s slide continued in Rob Patrick’s 21st season – the Lady Vols finished 11th in the SEC – and Patrick resigned Dec. 6.
It wasn’t all bad in 2017, though. UT softball, women’s tennis, swimming and diving, and track gave Vol fans reasons to cheer. Still, it was pretty gloomy.
So let’s move forward. Here are some dates to watch this spring:
JAN. 13, MEN’S TENNIS OPENER
The Vols start the 2018 season at home at Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center with two matches Saturday (Jan. 13) against Charlotte at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Tennessee has five more matches at Goodfriend before heading to Austin, Texas, for the Jan. 23-26 ITA Kick-Off Weekend (Texas, Minnesota and Notre Dame are the other four teams in Austin). If Tennessee advances, it plays Feb. 16-19 in the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in Seattle.
Such an early run to nationals would be anticipated a few years ago, but UT tennis fell on hard times before Currie fired Winterbotham, who rebuilt the Vols into a national power during his 11 years in Knoxville – they were NCAA runners-up in 2010 – but he had consecutive bad seasons in 2016 and 2017 and went 0-12 and 3-9 in the SEC, respectively.
Currie selected Winterbotham’s longtime assistant coach, Chris Woodruff, as interim coach before announcing him as head coach in mid-May. It was a popular hire, one supported by UT fans the local tennis community, and even Winterbotham. Woodruff, a lifelong resident of Knoxville, won the NCAA singles championship in 1993 while playing for Tennessee, reached No. 29 in the ITA World Rankings in the 1990s and began his coaching career at UT when he retired from pro tennis in 2002.
Junior Timo Stodder of Berlin, Germany is Woodruff’s top player. Stodder enters the 2018 season ranked No. 36 in the Oracle/ITA Rankings after playing No. 1 for the Vols all last year. Junior Preston Touliatos, who missed last season with a back injury, returns to the top half of the lineup.
Three freshmen made their UT debuts during the fall season: Andrew Rogers of Brentwood, Adam Walton of Home Hill, Australia; and Ryan Smith of Toowoomba, Australia.
Woodruff signed two more players during the early signing period who are eligible: Nicaise Muamba of Laval, Quebec, and Sean Presson of Knoxville.
JAN. 20-21, WOMEN’S TENNIS OPENERS
More tennis, anyone?
UT’s women start the season Jan. 20 against Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia, and play the next day against William & Mary in Williamsburg. The Lady Vols play four matches the next two weekends at Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center.
Former Lady Vol tennis player Alison Ojeda was hired as an assistant to Mike Patrick in June of 2016, and when Patrick resigned in November of 2016, Ojeda was promoted to head coach.
Her first season was a hit. The Lady Vols posted their most wins (19) and highest national ranking (No. 12) since 2011, earned their first NCAA bid since 2014 and finished the season ranked No. 24.
Ojeda was rewarded by Currie with a five-year contract with an average salary of $141,000, contract terms that match those of Woodruff’s.
Ojeda must replace two top-three players from last year’s lineup in Brittany Lindl (No. 1) and Eve Repic (Nos. 3 and 2), who were both seniors.
Junior Sadie Hammond of Belgrade, Maine, will compete for one of the Lady Vols’ top spots.
Ojeda had two freshmen in the fall, Tenika McGiffin of Queensland, Australia, and Chelsea Sawyer of Clemmons, North Carolina, and signed two players in the fall, Kylie Duckworth of Martinez, Georgia, and Kaitlin Staines of New South Wales, Australia.
FEB. 7, NATIONAL SIGNING DAY
It’s the day Jeremy Pruitt, hired to as UT’s new coach Dec. 7, caps off his first recruiting class as a head coach.
Pruitt completed his duties as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in Monday night’s national championship game against Georgia and hit the recruiting trail with his new staff Friday when the dead period ended.
So far, Pruitt has done an admirable job keeping Tennessee’s recruiting on track while doing double duty with the Tide. UT enters the stretch run with the No. 16 recruiting class in the nation and No. 5 in the SEC, per the 247Sports composite rankings Monday.
Topping the Vols’ needs before signing day is the cornerback position, particularly with Rashaan Gaulden opting to forgo his senior season and to enter the NFL draft. Gaulden’s departure leaves Tennessee without its top four corners from the 2017 secondary, perhaps the best position group of the team.
One of Pruitt’s targets is cornerback Olaijah Griffin of Mission Viejo, California, who was committed to UCLA when he took an official visit to Tennessee Dec. 15. Griffin, a four-star prospect and No. 4 corner in the Class of 2018 by 247Sports, opened his recruiting not long after his visit and now has Tennessee atop his list with USC.
UT could get a gem if it lands five-star cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart of San Diego, whose official visit to Tennessee is Feb. 2, the final weekend before signing day. Taylor-Stuart has 50 offers, a list including Alabama, Georgia, USC and Texas A&M.
Four-star linebacker Quay Walker of Crisp County (Georgia) High is committed to Alabama, but last week said he was unsure of his commitment. Pruitt’s prior relationship with Walker at Alabama could help sway him to the Vols, whose new 3-4 defensive scheme would be a perfect fit on the outside for the 6-2, 220-pound Walker.
Don’t be surprised if Pruitt pulls it off. Last Saturday, four-star outside linebacker JJ Peterson of Moultrie, Georgia, committed to the Vols during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl without ever visiting campus. He chose UT over Alabama and Georgia. Peterson’s best relationship during with an Alabama coach during recruiting was with Pruitt, and his lead recruiter from Georgia was outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who was hired by Pruitt to be UT’s defensive coordinator.
The next four weeks will be critical for Pruitt’s first signing class.
FEB. 8, SOFTBALL OPENERS
Amid a bum year for UT sports was another big year for UT softball under co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, whose 2017 team finished No. 11 and No. 12 in the national polls.
How big was it? On Sept. 27, Currie announced the Weeklys received raises and contract extensions through the 2022 season (their previous contracts were set to expire June 30, 2018). Their new five-year deals are worth an average of $467,000 annually (combined).
They begin the 2018 season in the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona, against Boise State and Arizona State, and played four more games in the tournament before heading to Clearwater, Florida, the next weekend for the Michelle Smith Tournament.
The Lady Vols (48-12, 16-7 SEC last year) have a loaded roster again after advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals (round of 16) last year. The team lost only one position player from the 2017 roster, outfielder Megan Geer, and return both of its top pitchers in junior Matty Moss and sophomore Caylan Arnold.
Senior shortstop Meghan Gregg returns as the SEC Player of the Year and NSBC All-American. Arnold was the SEC Freshman of the Year, and Moss was on the All-SEC second team, along with junior utility player Brooke Vines.
The Weeklys are building for the future, too. Their 2018 class of six players, signed in November of 2017, was ranked No. 2 in the nation by FloSoftball. All six players are ranked in FloSoftball’s Hot 100 Rankings.
The highest-ranked newcomer is catcher Ally Shipman, sister of former UT All-American shortstop Madison Shipman (2011-14). Ally, No. 2 on FloSoftball’s list, committed to Tennessee as an eighth-grader.
FEB. 16-18, BASEBALL OPENING SERIES
Tennessee starts the Tony Vitello coaching era Feb. 16-18 with a three-game series against Maryland at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. It’s the first of nine consecutive home games to start the 2018 season.
Vitello, previously an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas, has the task of making Tennessee baseball of national relevance again. UT hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2005 when it went for the third time under coach Rod Delmonico, who was fired after the 2007 season.
Tennessee didn’t reach the SEC tournament in Todd Raleigh’s four years as coach (2008-11), and during Serrano’s tenure (2012-17) reached the league tournament in three of his six seasons (it lost openers all three times).
Vitello, who signed a five-year contract worth $493,000 per year, plans to end the downward trend with a mix of game-experienced returnees and newcomers. UT had five players selected in the 2017 MLB Draft: third baseman Jordan Rodgers, infielder Jeff Moberg, and pitchers Kyle Serrano, Zach Warren, and Hunter Martin. UT’s other biggest loss from 2017 was senior reliever Jon Lipinski.
Vitello has 10 of 17 pitchers returning from the 2017 staff. Top pitchers are sophomores Garrett Stallings and Zach Linginfelter and juniors Will Neely and Daniel Vasquez.
UT returns seven players with positional starts led by senior catcher Benito Santiago and sophomore catcher/infielder Pete Derkay and sophomore infielder Andre Lipcius. Derkay and Lipcius were fulltime starters as freshmen in 2017.
Top newcomers include freshman catcher/pitcher Morgan Copeland of Loganville (Georgia) High, freshman outfielder Zach Daniels of Eagles Landing High/Stockbridge, Georgia, infielder/pitcher Brandon Trammell of Bearden High in Knoxville and freshman pitcher/infielder Chase Wallace of Sevier County High in Sevierville.
Vitello hired three new fulltime assistant coaches – Frank Anderson, Josh Elander and Ross Kivett – but retained Todd Helton as director of player development (a volunteer position) and got former Vol and MLB catcher J.P. Arencibia as a student assistant coach.
MARCH 7-11, SEC MEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
Can the Vols get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Cuonzo Martin’s 2013-14 team reached the Final Eight?
It didn’t look good for an NCAA return before the Vols upset Kentucky 76-65 Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena and then defeated Vanderbilt in Nashville Tuesday night, 92-84. It left UT 11-4 overall and 2-2 in the SEC.
Tennessee climbed to No. 20 (Associated Press) nationally during its pre-conference schedule, but opened the SEC season with losses to Arkansas on the road and to Auburn at home.
The Vols faced almost a must-win game against No. 17 Kentucky and managed to close out a comeback victory.
Big question the rest of the season: Can the Vols continue to close out games? UT couldn’t in all four of its losses with chances to beat then-No. 5 Villanova, then-No. 7 North Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn.
Tennessee’s pre-conference start raised some questions about the SEC media’s preseason prediction, which was 13th in the 14-team league. UT, No. 23 in this week’s Associated Press poll, didn’t have a player on the All-SEC first- or second-team preseason teams, either.
Sophomore forward Grant Williams is UT’s best player, and certainly worthy of all-conference consideration. Kyle Alexander, the 6-11 junior forward from Canada, is vastly improved, and 6-9 redshirt freshman forward John Fulkerson is returning to form from last year’s elbow injury. UT has depth in the backcourt with the addition of fifth-year senior James Daniel III, who led the nation in scoring (27.1 ppg) in 2015-16 while at Howard.
UT’s chances of making the NCAAs likely hinge on the SEC tournament in St. Louis. If the Vols go 8-8 the rest of the regular season and win a couple of games in St. Louis, they’ve got a chance to get an NCAA bid with their strength of schedule and a couple of quality wins (Purdue, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Kentucky so far).
FEB. 28-MARCH 4, SEC WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT
Remember when Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick was taking some heat last season for her team’s unpredictable performances? It’s long forgotten now.
Warlick retooled her roster with the No. 1 recruiting class (four players) to go with All-SEC seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared. There are no chemistry issues like last year. Far from it.
With Sunday’s 86-73 home victory over Vanderbilt, the No. 7-ranked Lady Vols (15-0, 3-0) are off to their best start since Pat Summitt’s 2005-06 team won its first 18 games of the season. Tennessee plays its next four games on the road against ranked opponents: vs. Texas A&M on Thursday, vs. South Carolina on Sunday and vs. Notre Dame on Jan. 18.
Warlick has started the same starting five in every game this year with Nared and freshman Rennia Davis at forwards, Russell at center, and freshman Evina Westbrook and junior Meme Jackson at guard. It’s the longest UT has opened a season with the same starting five since at least the 1977-78 season.
Tennessee was picked to finish fifth in the SEC coaches’ preseason poll behind South Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri and Texas A&M, while the 6-2 Nared and 6-6 Russell were both chosen to the preseason first team. Both have played up to the billing thus far.
Nared, who can play forward or guard, is the team’s leading scorer (17.3 ppg) and rebounder (8.9) going into the Texas A&M game. Russell is right behind Nared at 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
The Lady Vols expect a far better finish than last year when they lost to Alabama in the second round of the SEC tournament and entered the NCAAs a No. 5 seed. They lost to No. 4 seed Louisville in the second round to finish 20-12, and starting guard Jordan Reynolds and starting forward Diamond DeShields opted to leave the program before their senior seasons.
There’s a lot of basketball before the SEC tournament in Nashville. Lady Vol fans can hope their team is playing the same way in March as they are now.
MARCH-APRIL, SPRING FOOTBALL
Tennessee hasn’t announced dates for spring football practices, but regardless, it’s a huge time for Pruitt and his staff to start putting 2018 plans in place.
There are questions at all positions, not just cornerback.
As of now, quarterback will be the biggest storyline of the spring. All three of UT’s starters from 2017 return, unless one transfers. Quinten Dormady started the first five games. Jarrett Guarantano got the next six starts. And true freshman Will McBride started one game when Guarantano had an ankle injury and Dormady had undergone shoulder surgery.
Tennessee also needs a feature running back with the departure of John Kelly to the NFL. Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy appears to be a top candidate.
Same at the receiver position with the future of top receiver Jauan Jennings in limbo. Jennings missed the 2017 season with a wrist injury and was dismissed from the team the last week of the season after a profanity-laced tirade against the ex-Vols’ coaching staff.
He reportedly met with Fulmer about returning in 2018, but Pruitt will have the final say-so.
Tennessee needs work on the offensive line, where there’s a serious lack of depth. The defensive line took a hit when starting tackle Kahlil McKenzie announced Sunday he will enter the NFL Draft and forgo his senior year. Pruitt and his staff will spend spring installing a new 3-4 defense. In other words, lots of work to do for Vols football.
Stay tuned, Vol Nation.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.