Jennings and Bituli lead Tennessee to a 41-21 win over South Carolina

Will Muschamp’s reign over the Tennessee Volunteers officially ended on Saturday. The coach was 7-0 against the Vols lifetime with three wins as the coach at Florida and four as South Carolina’s. Both teams were itching for a win to keep their bowl hopes alive, and the second half performance by the Vols confirmed the boys in orange aren’t dead yet.

The Gamecocks took the first play from scrimmage to the house in the form of a 75 yard touchdown by Shi Smith. Tennessee responded by starting Knoxville’s Batman, Jauan Jennings, at QB with a wildcat look on the first play. Freshman QB J.T. Shrout then took the reigns and lead the Vols down field for a successful field goal try by Brent Cimaglia to make it 7-3.

Both offenses were stagnant for the remainder of the first quarter. Then, Marquez Callaway ignited the home crowd in Neyland Stadium with a 64 yard punt return for a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the second quarter. South Carolina responded with a long drive of their own, which resulted in a one yard touchdown run on 4th & goal by Mon Denson to make the score 14-10.

Jauan Jennings caught two long balls the next drive, the second being a gutsy broken tackle filled 48 yard touchdown reception to push the Vols back out front 17-14. Ryan Hilinski of SC lead a two minute drill down the field, culminated by possibly the catch of the year by Bryan Edwards at the goal line. South Carolina finished off the first half with a touchdown making the score 21-17 at the break.

I don’t know if Michael Jordan was waiting in the locker room with his secret stuff or what, but the Vols were a completely different team in the second half. On the first play of the second half, Jarrett Guarantano found Marquez Callaway on a deep post for an immediate red zone opportunity. The Vols stalled and settled for a missed field goal. But after an immediate stop by the defense, Guarantano found Jauan Jennings in the back of the endzone on 3rd & 14 for his second touchdown of the day making the score 24-21. After that moment, Tennessee never looked back.

Shrout took back control under center after an injury to Guarantano and found Marquez Callaway in stride for a 56 yard touchdown the very next drive. The top had officially popped in Neyland, and the nowhere near capacity crowd re-energized the team to a point that hadn’t been reached in ages. The Tennessee defense knocked down a Hilinski pass on 4th & 2 to retake possession as the fourth quarter began.

Shrout found Jauan Jennings again down the left sideline for a huge play following the turnover on downs, giving the Vols another redzone opportunity. The drive stalled and Brent Cimaglia came on for another successful field goal making the score 34-21. Tennessee proceeded to force another 3 & out which resulted in a blocked punt by Daniel Bituli who also recovered the ball in the endzone for a UT touchdown. The late score made the count 41-21, which in the end would be the final.

Jauan Jennings & Daniel Bituli were absolutely magnificent and cemented themselves in the hearts of Vol fans for life. Jennings had 7 receptions for 174 yards & 2 touchdowns while also taking wildcat snaps all night. Bituli had 15 tackles, a TFL, a blocked punt, and a touchdown. The two gave the fans two of the best single player performances by Volunteers in ages. They were both rewarded with SEC Offensive & Defensive players of the week, respectively.

UT played three players at QB on Saturday and it actually worked in their favor. Tennessee had a season high 351 yards passing as a team. Jarrett Guarantano accounted for 229 of the yards, while J.T. Shrout threw for 122 of his own on seven completions. JG made a lot of the right throws bringing fan and coach confidence way up from the depths it fell to after the Alabama debacle. Shrout announced himself as a real deal college player, making the Vols QB outlook much better than it had been in previous weeks.

The special teams deserves a huge shout out as well as they accounted for two touchdowns on Saturday. Jeremy Pruitt chooses to play a lot of starters on his special team units and on game day we found out why. The return for a touchdown by Marquez Callaway and the blocked punt by Bituli were arguably the two largest plays of the game and locked in the win for Tennessee.

As expected, the offense continues to build on each week and Jim Chaney has everyone believing this team can score points on a consistent basis. The Volunteers threw the ball all over the yard regardless of who was taking the snaps, and the run game is finally setting a foundation weekly with Jordan, Chandler, and Gray sharing carries. One starts looking at Tennessee’s recent performances, and there’s a very strong possibility this football team is turning a corner.

The fact of the matter is this, Tennessee lost 4 of their first 5. With losses against Georgia State & BYU. UT was primed for an absolutely putrid season, possibly the worst in school history. But after wins against Mississippi State and South Carolina, and the level of effort being shown weekly, a bowl game and maybe even a seven win regular season is totally obtainable. Tennessee’s remaining games are against UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. All four of those teams are completely and utterly beatable, and don’t offer nearly the challenge the front half of UT’s schedule has thrown at them.

Jeremy Pruitt seems to have this entire team bought into his rugged mindset. This team is tough and the defense is playing with a nasty attitude. Only time will tell where this team will finish, but I would be surprised if the Vols aren’t playing postseason football in a couple months.

Guarantano or Shrout? Jeremy Pruitt’s Biggest Decision to Date

Jeremy Pruitt confirmed Wednesday that Redshirt Freshman QB, J.T. Shrout, will at least have an opportunity to play Saturday against South Carolina. Most of the fan base has expressed their outright feelings that they’re ready to move on from Jarrett Guarantano. And, honestly, the game tape tells the same story.

Guarantano appeared in 12 games last season as the starter and threw only 12 total touchdowns. He’s thrown eight TD’s thus far this season in seven games. To put that in perspective, LSU QB, Joe Burrow has already thrown 29 touchdowns through seven games this season. Tennessee is no where near the quality of team that LSU is, but that discrepancy is enough to see his play style may not fit what UT is looking for.

Shrout was a three-star prospect out of Santa Clarita, California in the 2017 class. He took his team to the state quarterfinals while throwing for 3,064 yards and 27 touchdowns in his senior campaign. High School stats don’t hold much weight when transferring to the college level, but it’s nice to know the kid has a gunslinger mentality.

Tennessee is coming off a strong effort against Alabama that was squandered by a goal line fumble early in the 4th quarter by Guarantano. It was a night in which penalties had more of an effect than plays made on the field. And that’s something South Carolina can relate to wholeheartedly.

USC dropped last week’s game as a result of missed calls, specifically a hold and an offensive pass interference that both resulted in touchdowns. Tavien Feaster did the majority of the damage for the Gamecocks with 25 carries resulting in 175 yards and a touchdown. But in the end, Florida proved to be too strong with the final score being in favor of the Gators 38-27.

Tennessee is 2-5 while South Carolina is cruising at 3-4. Both teams need a victory terribly. South Carolina will most likely make a bowl game regardless, but the Vols really need this game to have any chance of making it there. Another concussion to new starter Brian Maurer leaves UT in quite a predicament, though.

Will HC Jeremy Pruitt choose experience in Guarantano? Or will he elect to go with youth and potential in the young Shrout? As a fan of the team watching from the rafters, I hope he elects to go with Shrout and diverge to Guarantano if there is a disaster early.

The fan base that keeps filling the stadium for a 2-5 team is hungry for a winner. The team’s effort has been outstanding the last few weeks, and a good performance here could turn the season around entirely. Jeremy Pruitt has a big decision to make, likely the biggest of his career to date.

The Year of the Duo: 2019-2020 NBA Season Preview

The NBA is as evenly distributed talent wise as it has been since LeBron’s valiant return to Cleveland in 2014. And in 90’s throwback fashion, the narrative of the season is dominated by the dynamic duos which have formed all across the league. Tonight is like Christmas morning for all of us NBA fans as the Association always has incredible match-ups on tap for opening night.

The evening will kick off with the Pelicans facing off against the defending champion Raptors. The game has been tainted a bit with #1 overall pick Zion Williamson out for two months with a meniscus injury. As well as Kawhi Leonard leaving Toronto for the bright lights of Los Angeles in free agency. But the game serves as the starting point of the 2019-20 season, and that’ll make it worth the watch as two young cores face off.

The creme de la creme of the night comes in the form of “The Battle of Staples Center.” Newly acquired Clippers, Kawhi Leonard & Paul George (out with injury), will face off against LeBron James & Anthony Davis of the Lakers. It’s just game one of the season, but watching how head coaches Doc Rivers & Frank Vogel use their newly acquired pieces to attack the other is worth noting as well. Both duos have the opportunity to be one of the best the NBA has seen in sometime.

LeBron James is entering his 17th season in the league. Obviously thoughts of fatigue creep into one’s mind when thinking of how many minutes LeBron has racked up over those years. But the man spends an enormous amount of his wealth on body conditioning and care yearly. I would be shocked if he didn’t have a satisfactory night against a formidable opponent.

When NBA GM’s are asked which player they would choose to start a franchise, most answer with either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis. Davis is a premiere forward/center hybrid who’s defensive ability is absolutely staggering. In the last few seasons, his offensive game has taken leaps. He’s become a consistent jump shooter with an efficient back to the basket game. He can switch every screen and provides incredible flexibility to the Lakers defense. On paper, he seems to be the perfect player to match with LeBron in the effort to bring the Lakers back to prominence.

As for Kawhi Leonard & Paul George, I can’t recall the last time two dominant defensive wings of this caliber suited up for the same team. The two also posses the ability to create their own shot and score at will. If both are fresh and healthy, this team could be a defensive juggernaut when paired with the likes of Patrick Beverly and Montrezl Harrell. Kawhi Leonard is coming off a Finals MVP and is at the height of his powers. PG has been struggling with shoulder trouble, but before the flair up, he was playing at a MVP caliber level last season. If both can sync, we could be looking at the future NBA champs.

I keep having to remind myself it’s just opening night, pump the brakes a bit, but we could be potentially watching a Western Conference Finals preview tonight. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Paul George are four of the biggest names in basketball. Tonight, three of the four will share the floor (Paul George is sidelined with an injury.) Strap in because this should be an incredible match-up with major playoff implications.

Maurer and Tagovailoa exit early as Tide roll Tennessee 35-13

Judging by the box score, most fans would think it was the same old story. Alabama dominating Tennessee for the 13th straight season without any sort of fight from the men in orange & white. But the game tape tells a different story. Jeremy Pruitt and company had the the #1 team in the country nervous for three quarters late Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. In the end, mistakes, and an unnecessary roughness call that will be hard to forget were too much for Tennessee.

The game began with a quick three & out for the visiting Volunteers who proceeded to punt the ball away to the Tide. Heisman candidate, Tua Tagovailoa, didn’t miss a beat. He quickly took his team down the field for an Alabama redzone opportunity after being given a short field by punt returner, Jaylen Waddle. Najee Harris finished off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run to push the Tide out front 7-0.

Directly following the Tide touchdown, Maurer pulled on a RPO look and fired a dart to Jauan Jennings over the middle. Jennings bobbled the ball and it was intercepted by Bama’s ball-hawking defense. It felt like the beginning of a book Vol fans have read a thousand times. Until the unthinkable happened. Tagovailoa’s only incompletion of the game came in the form of a critical interception by Nigel Warrior at the goal line. The pick prevented the Tide from taking a two score lead early in the first quarter. Maurer then retook the reigns and reminded everyone why Jeremy Pruitt’s system and mindset may be working after all.

Maurer led a confident looking 43 yard touchdown drive by the Vols. Topped off by a one-yard quarterback sneak to bring Tennessee even with the Tide 7-7 with 4:31 left to play in the first quarter. Tua responded with a touchdown drive of his own that culminated in a nine-yard touchdown run by Brian Robinson to push the Crimson Tide ahead 14-7. Directly before the end of the first quarter, Maurer was hit by a blitzing Alabama linebacker and was ruled out for the rest of the game with a concussion. Redshirt Junior Jarrett Guarantano proceeded to take over at quarterback for the underdog Volunteers.

Guarantano missed a wide open Jauan Jennings in the end zone and Tennessee settled for a field goal to bring the score to 14-10. Tua & Co. immediately responded with a big play filled touchdown drive capped off with another one-yard run by Najee Harris. On the next Alabama drive, Tagovailoa was sacked by Greg Emerson which resulted in a lower body injury sidelining him for the rest of the game. Bama missed a field goal after Jeremy Pruitt iced their kicker with all three of his remaining timeouts, resulting in a 21-10 halftime score in Tuscaloosa.

Tennessee forced a three & out after halftime and proceeded to add a field goal of their own. The aforementioned kick cut the Crimson Tide’s lead to 21-13 roughly halfway through the third quarter. On a critical third down after an incompletion, Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty for using Mac Jones’ body to help him get up after a quarterback hurry. Tennessee never recovered from the iffy penalty. Alabama capitalized on the second chance and quickly scored a touchdown to go ahead 28-13 late in the third quarter.

Guarantano lead a gutsy drive all the way to Alabama’s goal line, until a broken play lead to a fumble that the Crimson Tide returned 100 yards to seal the game at 35-13. I felt a full recap was important to understand just how close this game was for the 35-point underdog Volunteers.

Jarrett Guarantano’s time of playing significant snaps may have officially ended with his up & over attempt on the QB sneak. The kid is a great team player, seems to have a great attitude, and genuinely cares about the Power T on his helmet. But somehow that passion cannot transfer to the field in the form of big plays. The fan base is ready to move on to someone fresh, even in terms of a backup. Maurer is a great first option but he’s having a hard time staying on the field. Even with that said, J.T. Shrout looks to have a great chance to catapult himself to the full time backup.

The defense, as they have all year, played their hearts out against a team that was averaging 51 points a game. The phantom unnecessary roughness call ended up breaking the Volunteers backs, but the effort was their from start to finish. Henry To’oto’o’s return in the second half was a big difference and the secondary continues to improve weekly.

The biggest takeaway from this week for Tennessee is the offense is finally beginning to find its identity. The run game, lead by Tim Jordan with 17 carries for 94 yards, was able to be effective against an always stout Alabama defense. When Maurer is healthy, the vertical passing game is dangerous and must be respected. Jim Chaney is slowly but surely creating an offensive unit that can put points on the board.

For almost a decade, Tennessee has been forced to use moral victories to fuel its fire for more football. On the surface, Saturday takes the form of one of those victories. But as a viewer watching from my couch at home, it didn’t. For the first time in a long time it felt like a regular Saturday night and Tennessee was competing in a big time football game. Jeremy Pruitt’s tough and rugged mindset is slowly seeping into this team’s identity.

The Vols are 2-5, but they will be expected to compete in all their remaining games against South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.

The light may finally be showing through the cracks for the young Vols.

Two phantom penalties cost Detroit as Packers win on last second field goal

“That’s a part of the move I do, and yeah, I don’t think its a penalty.” Lions defensive end, Trey Flowers, defended both of the illegal hands to the face penalties called on him on crucial 3rd downs in the 4th quarter. The calls both resulted in Packers first downs, the second ultimately leading to a game winning field goal by Mason Crosby.

If you take a look at the film, Flowers clearly uses his hands to firmly grab the chest of the tackle and use a sort of “bull rush” technique to drive him back. On both occasions, Flowers’ hands never made contact with the face or neck of the tackle. In a 16 game season, where every outing matters, these calls are absolutely inexcusable. The butterfly effect of this is lost jobs, smaller contracts, and in this case, a lost game.

On the other hand, Detroit had multiple red zone trips that resulted in field goals. Giving Aaron Rodgers and first year head coach, Matt LaFleur, nine lives usually results in big trouble. Rodgers was 24/39 with 283 yards, 2 TD’s and a pick. Pretty pedestrian in terms of what Rodgers is capable of, but with the Lions only able to produce one offensive touchdown on the night, it was enough.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was exceptional at creating big plays for Detroit all night, including a flea-flicker to Kenny Golladay on the first play of the evening for a gain of 67 yards. But each time the Lions got close, Green Bay stood strong. Four times throughout the game Detroit settled for field goals. Their last pushed them ahead 22-13 with a little over 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter. From that moment forward, it was the Rodgers show.

Rodgers led a touchdown drive immediately following the aforementioned field goal, while also being bailed out on a 3rd & 10 sack by one of the phantom illegal hands to the face calls on Flowers. Rodgers found Allen Lazard down the left sideline for a touchdown on 3rd & 5. A couple dropped balls by Detroit led to Green Bay getting the ball back now down 22-20. On a crucial 3rd & 4 with 1:45 left in the game, the second of the hands to the face calls materialized to give Green Bay a new set of downs. Which allowed them to bleed the clock and kick the go ahead field goal as time expired.

Fans around the world were flabbergasted at how the pinstripes really decided this game. I think just about any fan of sport would agree, if you’re not certain in the call, just don’t throw the flag. Every fan at home is watching this game for the players, not the regular men with the mics attached to their heads. Detroit needed this game, a win here could have turned their entire season around and catapulted them to an important playoff birth. The Lions franchise has had trouble capitalizing on the talent that is Stafford, but tonight they didn’t waste him. The referees did.

Alarm bells are officially sounding for the 2-4 Browns

Baker Mayfield has become the epitome of everything he wasn’t last season. His immense swagger has become his greatest enemy as there is no “juice” without wins. He looks uncomfortable when the pocket breaks down, which in the past, has been the second year quarterback’s greatest strength. After a gut wrenching 32-28 loss to the surging Seahawks and MVP candidate Russell Wilson, it’s officially time to panic in Cleveland.

First year head coach Freddie Kitchens was in a prime position for a successful first season at the helm. Cleveland is coming off a 7-8-1 2018 campaign in which their overall #1 selection almost gave the team a long awaited playoff birth. Their offseason additions (Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt) all made sense and added absolute firepower to an overall solid offensive unit. But nothing has transitioned to the field.

The Browns kicked off their 2019 campaign by getting shellacked by the now 2-4 Titans by a score of 43-13. Who’s quarterback, Marcus Mariota, has played so badly this season he was benched today for veteran journeyman Ryan Tannehill. Kitchens and company were able to right the ship to 2-2 until a fateful Monday Night Football match-up with the still unbeaten 49’ers in week 5. The Browns were dominated like a last place team and Baker Mayfield showed the least amount of moxie he’s shown in long time. The final score was 31-3, the wheels had officially fallen off.

Mayfield’s inner fire and gunslinger seems to have dwindled into a thought process fueled by not making mistakes. Like most things in football, fair or not, it starts with the QB. Baker is completing just 56.6% of his passes this season as compared to 63.8% in his rookie campaign. The most staggering statistic is his touchdown to interception ratio. Through six games, Baker has only thrown 5 touchdown passes, while simultaneously throwing 11 interceptions. That is absolutely putrid considering the amount of weapons surrounding him. Jarvis Landry, OBJ, David Njoku (IR), and Nick Chubb are just a few names that should be helping the young QB bring Cleveland back to playoff contention.

Even after all the bad, there’s still time to right the ship. The Browns have only slid to second in their division (AFC North), behind the 4-2 Ravens, whom Cleveland beat in week 4 by a score of 40-25. We’re only roughly a third of a way through the season. If the struggling Browns can get OBJ and Chubb/Hunt (returns in week 8) going we could be talking about a playoff push in a month or two. But until then, the weight of this franchise falls on the “BakeShow.” NFL stardom or bust hangs in the balance. For purely entertainment purposes, I hope its the prior. Either way, things are at Defcon 1 inside the Browns facility.

LSU cruises past Florida as Burrow inserts himself into the Heisman conversation

With 10:56 left in the third quarter, Redshirt Junior quarterback Kyle Trask fired a bullet across the middle to push the seventh ranked Gators outfront 28-21 in Death Valley. From that moment until the horn sounded, LSU reminded us all why we may need to forget Alabama & Clemson as the front runners to win this year’s College Football Playoff.

LSU’s defense was suffocating for the final 22 minutes of the ball game. And the Tiger’s “pass now, run later” approach pulled through again as a short six yard run pulled LSU even at 28, while a 33 yard scamper by Tyrion Davis-Price pulled them ahead 35-28 the very next possession. Trask, impressive in his own right, lead the Gators back down the field with the possibility of tying the game at 35. Until an interception in the endzone by Derek Stingley halted their drive and turned the ball back over to LSU. The Tiger’s signal caller, Joe Burrow, ended up making the play that broke the Gator’s backs, as he found Ja’Marr Chase for a 54 yard touchdown down the right sideline directly following the interception. LSU went home happy after a convincing 42-28 win over a fellow SEC rival.

LSU, until this season’s offensive overhaul, was known for pro-style run heavy offense. Often times rendering them ineffective against defenses with plenty of size and speed, like Florida. But with talented QB Joe Burrow returning for his second year with the Tigers (transferred from Ohio State), Head Coach Ed Orgeron decided it was time to open things up. LSU dumped their pro-style set up and promoted Tiger lifer Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator from tight-ends coach. Now a five wide look and offensive domination are two things LSU is getting used to quickly.

Let me throw some numbers at you. On the season, Burrow is completing 78.4% of his passes while having thrown 22 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions. That’s impressive, but just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a list of QB’s with 300 yards and 3 touchdowns against Florida in the last 10 years: Joe Burrow. That’s it. He’s rocking a 93.0 QBR on the season which is good for fourth in the nation. His efficiency, especially in the always talented SEC, is staggering and is boosting LSU towards real national contender hopes.

Sitting at a perfect 6-0, the Tigers are on a crash course to meet suspected fellow undefeated, Alabama, on November 9th. #12 ranked Auburn and banged up Mississippi State are the only two games standing between LSU and the SEC West juggernaut led by Tua Tagovailoa. Tua v.s. Joe Part I may be the most anticipated game all year at this point. The game should also have serious playoff implications as the loser will still have a decent shot at making the four team playoff field. While the other will represent the SEC in Atlanta (barring absolute mayhem.)

Tagovailoa and Burrow almost have identical stats, with Tua having thrown one more touchdown and two less interceptions. His QBR surpasses Burrow’s by 2.9 points making it the highest in the NCAA. Neither have had their “Heisman moment” yet and I suspect one will have theirs in early November. The award, much like the MVP in the NBA, is more about narrative than anything else. I can’t think of a better story than Joe Burrow’s long and windy journey to lead LSU back to prominence. If the senior from Athens, Ohio can march his troops into Tuscaloosa and knock off the Bear Bryant of the 21st century, then he more than has a case for the award for most outstanding player in college football.

We have four weeks until that fateful clash of Titans in T-Town. But until then, I can hear the hundreds of thousands of voices all the way from Baton Rouge, “GEAUX TIGA’S!”

Zion Williamson shines as New Orleans downs Utah in their preseason home debut

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few years, Zion Williamson should be a name you’re used to hearing ad nauseam. His performance tonight in his third preseason game (26 points, 9/12 from the field, with 5 boards) threw more coal on the fire, as the 19 year old rookie gears up for his NBA debut on October 22nd.

Williamson dominated the first half of the fourth quarter and quickly turned an eleven point deficit into a four point Pelicans lead, before checking out for the last time with 7:09 left in the period. The Pelican reserves would hold off Utah for a 128-127 victory in New Orleans. The number one overall pick draws comparisons to Cleveland’s own LeBron James with his high-flying antics, but when this kid hits the floor it feels like a play style the NBA has not seen before.

Any stranger on the street can rave about Zion’s bounce, as they should, but basketball fans as a whole cannot overlook the fact this guy just spent a calendar year refining his craft with Coach K in Durham. He’s slippery, but listed at a whopping 284 pounds. His body type screams power forward, but when the ball is in his hands he looks like a comfortable big wing off the bounce. He’s undersized at 6’7, but his 45′ inch vertical leap and pure brawn makes up for size differences. Zion is the perfect player to insert into the league right now in 2019. He has the ability to switch every ball screen, extend the defense from range, block shots galore, and possesses a personality that will fill Smoothie King Center for the next 15 years if the stars align.

It’s no secret Zion is special, but the transition from college star to professional star is not always easy. Williamson has had many skeptics leading up to his pro debut, but when you really sit down and watch this kid’s game, it’s transcendent. He’s like Chris Weber, Charles Barkley, and Gerald Green (for bounce purposes) all rolled into one. In his last two appearances, he’s 21-25 from the field with over 25 points in both games. Efficiency like that rivals alley-oop dependent centers like Deandre Jordan from Brooklyn, and is so uncommon now in the age of isolation or pick & roll style offense resulting in a heavy volume of three-point shots.

One could really take a step back and argue the Pelicans won the Anthony Davis trade with how much sheer talent is waiting to be developed on their bench. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all came over from LA as well as three unprotected first round picks. Rookie center Jaxson Hayes out of Texas looks like he could be a real presence on the block, especially in pick & roll offense and defense. Nickeil Alexander-Walker looks to be a diamond in the rough after being traded from the Nets to the Pels on draft night. The 17th pick of the draft out of Virginia Tech has shown great aggressiveness and shooting touch thus far. Fellow Dukie, Veteran JJ Redick, should fit right in and provide a winning mentality in his first year with the club. The 35 year old guard has never missed the playoffs and does not plan on that streak ending this season. Oh and All-Star/2 Time NBA All-Defensive team selection Jrue Holiday is still there to guide the ship as the starting point guard.

I’m not saying this team will be hoisting the Larry O’ Brien trophy in June, but the Pelican faithful should be geared up for a successful and entertaining season. Alvin Gentry has so many new shiny toys to play with, I hope he unleashes the young guys and lets them *cough* run the break. I could possibly see a playoff birth for these upstarts. My lord, a Lakers-Pels series may push me over the edge. So many narratives; Zion vs LeBron (!), former Lakers young core back for redemption, and AD facing his old franchise.

10 days stand between the world and meaningful basketball, and much basketball must be played before summer’s warm light shines on each playoff series. The league is as balanced as it has been since LeBron’s return to Cleveland. And with Zion geared up to play all 82 as the future of this franchise, buckle your seat belts, folks. Takeoff for flight #1 in 10, 9, 8……

Tennessee hopes Saturday’s match-up with State serves as a turning point

Neyland Stadium erupted last Saturday early in the first quarter as true freshman quarterback Brian Mauer connected with Marquez Callaway for a 73 yard bomb. It was Tennessee’s longest passing play for a touchdown since 2015. I can only imagine Vol fans everywhere turning to the words of the great Derek Shepherd (McDreamy) to describe Mauer, “You were like coming up for fresh air. It was like I was drowning and you saved me.” In all seriousness, it’s been a rough go for UT this season with gut wrenching losses to Georgia State and BYU in weeks one & two. Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano manned the controls for those two games and was expected to build on big time SEC wins against Auburn and Kentucky last season. That is, until he didn’t. It quickly became apparent that the lack of consistency in offensive coordinators and overall coaches in UT’s system may have spoiled what most thought was an elite talent. With a fan base ready to implode, the only choice was to turn Mauer loose for his first start against #3 ranked Georgia.

The moment didn’t seem to be too big for the 3-star prospect from Ocala, Florida. Tennessee’s first drive stalled, and Georgia pounded their way to six with downhill running from a steeple of backs and precision passing from veteran quarterback Jake Fromm. Mauer and the vols responded with the aforementioned deep ball and Neyland unleashed the energy it’s been forced to hold in all season. On UT’s next drive, Mauer found Knoxville’s favorite, Jajuan Jennings, across the middle for a 12 yard touchdown that pushed Tennessee out front 14-10 early in the second quarter. Tennessee wouldn’t score again the rest of the game with the final score being 43-14 in favor of Georgia.

You must be asking yourself, how could a fan base be excited about a 29 point loss? The short answer is because for the first time all season, UT didn’t resemble a lower level division one program. For two quarters they hung with the best of the best with an 18 year old QB at the helm. This fan base yearns for a contender, and they saw just enough spark out of the 205 first half passing yards from #18 to stay interested. But the absolute grit shown from the defense, led by true freshman middle linebacker Henry To’oto’o, is why they’ll continue to fill the stadium with 102,455.

Saturday’s match-up with Mississippi State gives this young Tennessee Football team an opportunity to continue to grow in the shadow of a 1-4 start. Mississippi State (3-2) has had their own troubles at quarterback this season. State has been splitting time between Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader thus far. I would honestly expect both to see action Saturday while the pair are currently dealing with lower extremity injuries. Tennessee’s passing defense has been a strong point this season, allowing only 209.6 yards per game. In a game where turnovers could be the difference, I expect UT to try to make State’s injured QB’s leave the pocket as a result of pressure and make poor decisions. Even with that said, the question of depth at inside linebacker still hangs in the balance. Many inside of Tennessee’s program hope former All-American JJ Peterson can carry some of the load as he becomes more fluid and comfortable in Pruitt’s defensive system. Many expect Tennessee’s defense to show and fight regardless of depth, but the offense is still where most of the questions lie. Will we see deep, vertical, pressure applied by Mauer downfield like the first half against Georgia? Or will the youth and the lack of discipline result in penalties that will down the Vols for the fifth time in almost as many weeks? Those questions will be answered at high noon on Saturday.

The team seems to be most explosive when Mauer is at the helm and true freshman running back Eric Gray is receiving feature carries. Gray has struggled in pass protection at times this season, resulting in veterans Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler continuing to eat into Gray’s touches, often times rendering him obsolete and lost in the crowd. It’s clear Gray is the most talented of the bunch, whether he will be able to distance himself from the others is still yet to be seen. The receiving group, including tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, is stocked full of talent. I expect Callaway and Jennings to continue to see the bulk of work, but don’t be surprised to see newcomer Ramel Keyton get a few more touches in the coming weeks. With the spark Mauer has brought throwing the ball downfield, the receiving core should be licking their chops in anticipation of Saturday’s match-up. The offensive line is finally starting to play at a respectable level and it seems Jeremy Pruitt has found a rotation that he likes. The “dive-stretch” running scheme has been UT’s bread & butter this season, and I expect them to try to establish the run early, with deep shot play action calls to follow. Tennessee’s offense should see exponential growth weekly with Jim Chaney calling the shots and Mauer settling in as the permanent starter, but only time will tell.

One thing is for certain though, the Tennessee Fans will fill Neyland, like they always do. And remind us all one more time how special it is to be drenched in southern college football pageantry. An opportunity for a season changing win awaits, how Pruitt & Co. respond to that opportunity will continue to define their legacy in this dark time of Tennessee football tradition.