🏈 A coach's question about Tennessee's offense

And Tennessee Baseball's next run at a title

Hello. This is the Josh and Swain Newsletter, a quick roundup of the week’s top stories and topics involving Tennessee and the sports world.

Here’s what we have for you today:

  • Are Tennessee’s wide receivers ready to bounce back in 2024?

  • A VFL helps us break down Tennessee’s baseball regional

  • Can Tennessee basketball be even better in 2024-25?

  • The biggest month in recruiting for Tennessee football

HOW MUCH HELP WILL NICO HAVE?

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about Nico Iamaleava’s ability entering the 2024 season. 

While Iamaleva still has to prove himself as a full-time starter, expectations are high. 

The Athlon Sports preview magazine features anonymous quotes about each SEC team from opposing SEC coaches. 

One of the quotes this year focused on Iamaleava, along with his offensive teammates.   

“That staff thinks Nico (Iamaleava) will be the best quarterback they’ve had in that system. And when they have a QB they’re confident in, they’re as good as anyone on that side of the football.

“The question is going to be what they put around him this season; they don’t have an elite wideout or obvious target. The Tulane transfer (Chris Brazzell III) is pretty decent.”

The internal confidence in Iamaleava isn’t surprising; this staff signed him as a five-star prospect, after all. 

But how about the question of the offensive talent around him?

The “pretty decent” description of Brazzell doesn’t read like a huge compliment. 

But the point of the wide receiver unit needing to prove itself is correct. 

No single receiver has proven himself to be elite so far. 

That could change. 

Brazzell has drawn strong reviews from campus. 

Five-star freshman Mike Matthews has elite talent, but he has to first earn a role in the offense. 

And several players will have a chance to take their games to a higher level from last season. 

The Vols also have Bru McCoy returning from injury; he’s proven he can make plays in the SEC when healthy. 

Tennessee’s receiver unit should be more talented and deeper than a year ago. 

That will create legit competition for playing time, something Dont’e Thornton didn’t face when he arrived as a transfer last year.  

Jesse Simonton ranked the nation’s wide receiver units a few weeks ago and placed Tennessee just outside the top 10. 

That seemed fair to Jayson Swain, a former UT wide receiver, and me at the time. 

There are questions about Tennessee’s receivers that have to be answered.

But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their potential.

Especially if the Vols’ confidence in Iamaleava proves true. 

TENNESSEE’S ROAD TO OMAHA

Two titles down, one to go for Tennessee

Tennessee’s baseball team will begin the NCAA tournament on Friday night as the No. 1 overall seed.

The Vols will host Northern Kentucky following Southern Miss-Indiana.

📍 Lindsey Nelson Stadium
7:00 p.m. ET
📺 SEC Network
📻 99.1 The Sports Animal

This week’s newsletter welcomes VFL and former Tennessee pitcher Craig Cobb, a starter on the Vols’ 2005 College World Series team.

Cobb ranks second on Tennessee’s career wins and innings pitched lists, behind only R.A. Dickey in both categories.

Cobb has great insight into Tennessee’s team and how coach Tony Vitello has helped lead the Vols to another No. 1 overall seed.

Here’s our Q&A ahead of the Knoxville regional.

Q: What do you think of Tennessee’s draw in this regional? 

Cobb: I think it’s a good draw, but was predictable from the NCAA.  Getting Southern Miss after last year's super regional and the potential Wake Forest/Chase Burns draw in the super regional isn't a coincidence.

Q: What stands out about UT’s first opponent, Northern Kentucky — and how important is Game 1 in this regional?  

Cobb: NKU appears to have two different teams. Their offense has put up great numbers (.320 average, .545 slugging percentage, .982 OPS with 125 stolen bases) but their pitching has a 7.37 staff ERA. They have six guys with double digit steals and seven guys with 20+ extra base hits. So their offense could create havoc up and down the lineup. I think Tennessee will take care of business, but it could be a higher scoring game than people expect. Scoring runs early and knocking out their starter and getting into their bullpen will be key.

Q: What have you seen from Tennessee’s pitching as the season has progressed? 

Cobb: Growth. Coming into the year you felt good about AJ Russell, Drew Beam, Kirby Connell, and Aaron Combs. Zander Sechrist had primarily been a midweek opener and hadn't thrown many high pressure, meaningful pitches yet.  Everyone else was a question mark. Then losing Russell for an extended period of time created some doubt and required guys to step up and the coaches to adjust on the fly. And they've all done a masterful job at that. 

The change to have Chris Stamos be an opener on Fridays with AJ Causey coming in behind him is unconventional, especially in SEC, but has worked out great. Beam has been steady as expected. Sechrist has gotten better each week. Combs was shaky early but has been great in the back half of the year. Kirby is doing Kirby things. Snead has been able to come in and blow gas in short outings but can also stretch out and eat quality innings if needed. 

Coach Vitello and Coach Frank Anderson are able to pull strings and get the best out of their players. Last year it was moving Chase Burns to the bullpen where he was electric, and most coaches wouldn't entertain moving an arm like that out of the rotation. This year it has been losing the Friday starter, using openers on Friday, flipping the Friday rotation, and making the right moves in the bullpen. I think they've done an unbelievable job managing this staff, which doesn't have the type of dominant stuff as the last several staffs had.

Q: How does management of the pitching staff change in a regional compared to the regular season? 

Cobb: I don't think it changes at all for Tennessee. It has worked well so far against the best conference in the country. (Editor’s note: Tennessee announced Stamos as the Friday starter vs NKU, as expected.)

Q: What might be Tennessee’s biggest concern in this regional? 

Cobb: The team is well balanced. That said, I think the biggest concern to me would be an off day at the plate. The Vols are 43-4 when scoring five runs or more and 7-7 scoring four runs or less. They are 36-0 when scoring 7+ runs.

Q: What do you like about Tennessee’s lineup entering the NCAA tournament? And what question about the lineup might you have? 

Cobb: I like the lineup from top to bottom. They've hit the most home runs in the country and have a 1.014 OPS. The DH spot has been unsettled and no one has taken that role and run with it. However, they have a deep mix of talented bats that Coach Vitello can mix and match as needed.

Q: How have Tony Vitello and his staff taken Tennessee to this level, where the Vols have earned the No. 1 overall see in two out of three years?  

Cobb: The program was a dumpster fire for 10 years prior to this staff coming in. It is amazing that they've been able to turnaround the program this quickly and been this successful in the hardest, most competitive league of any sport in the country to rebuild. They've done everything right. They've recruited talented players. They've developed the players they've recruited. They've had very little attrition leave through the portal. They play a fun style of baseball and the players seemed to buy in immediately.

Fill in the blank: Tennessee will advance to the super regional if _____. 

Cobb: They do what they've been doing and don't have something funky happen.  

Q: Is there anything I’ve missed that you think we should point out before the regional?  

Cobb: Hopefully the Vols can celebrate with Bourbon Street Steak and Oreo Shakes!

SPORTS NUGGETS

🏈 Here’s the early schedule release for the SEC in football, including game times for Tennessee’s first three games..

🏈 Can Division I athletics continue to operate together? SEC commish Greg Sankey believes so (but that’s to be determined).

🏈 Other SEC spring meetings topics included football roster sizes and implementing availability reports during the season.

🏈 How will the new college sports revenue model comply with Title IX? That’s a good question!

🏈 This might end up being a big deal: an ex-Penn State doctor was awarded $5.25 million in a lawsuit alleging football coach James Franklin interfered with medical treatment.

🏀 The Field of 68 discussed why Dalton Knecht looks ready to make an impact in the NBA.

🏀 Kentucky landed transfer Jaxson Robinson, who played for Mark Pope at BYU and has considered staying in the NBA Draft.

Here’s a full preview of the NCAA baseball tournament.

💔 Loved this story from Rich Eisen about the great Bill Walton, who died this week at the age of 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

RICK BARNES LANDS HIS GUY

Chaz Lanier will bring his sharp shooting to Tennessee

Tennessee basketball received the news it hoped for last Friday when Chaz Lanier announced he’s transferring from North Florida to UT. 

He was the final piece Rick Barnes was waiting on in the transfer cycle. 

Lanier joins wing Darlinstone Dubar, power forward Igor Milicic Jr. (Charlotte) and center Felix Okpara (Ohio State) in the Vols’ transfer class. 

With Lanier on board, the conversation has shifted to potential and expectations for next year’s team. 

Can the 2024-25 Vols outperform this past season’s team, which won the SEC and reached the Elite Eight?

That will be Barnes’ expectation when the season begins. 

“You have to feel that way,” Barnes told Jimmy Hyams at the SEC spring meetings.

Barnes should think next year’s team can do better than last year’s squad.

Why would he think otherwise?

Zakai Zeigler and Jahmai Mashack will expect to win another title and go for the Final Four next season. 

But topping last year’s team will be difficult — something they know as well.

VFL Ron Slay joined Josh and Swain on Tuesday and pointed to the known commodity of several players from last year’s team. 

Replacing players who had been in the program for 3-5 years, along with All-American Dalton Knecht, won’t be easy.

But Slay also praised the overall talent of the upcoming Tennessee basketball team. 

“I thought the experience last year tilted the scale,” Slay said. “I think this (upcoming) year the talent is what tips the scale.”

Tennessee brought in four talented transfers who should all contribute.

We already know about Zeigler, Mashack and Jordan Gainey.

Tennessee’s rising sophomores will play a big role in determining the Vols’ depth of talent.

Slay reiterated his excitement about guard Cameron Carr.

And JP Estrella and Cade Phillips will have a chance to strengthen Tennessee’s frontcourt.

The new UT basketball team has a long way to go. 

The team needs to build chemistry and figure out minutes and the lineup rotation.

But no one seems to question the potential of next year’s team. 

That should create all the excitement Tennessee fans need in the meantime. 

Check out our full conversation with Ron Slay below.

TENNESSEE’S SEARCH FOR ELITE TALENT

George MacIntyre (left) is pushing hard for David Sanders | via Sanders’ X account

Tennessee football hosted its important 865 Live recruiting event last weekend. 

The Vols welcomed several key prospects, including five-star offensive tackle David Sanders Jr. 

Sanders is the top player on Tennessee’s board, with schools like Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State all pushing for his services. 

Ohio State and Clemson have looked like the top competition to this point. 

Tennessee QB commit George MacIntyre predicted at the On3 Elite Series this week that the Vols will land Sanders.

“What else would you expect him to say?” you might wonder. 

I thought the same thing. 

But MacIntyre didn’t have to predict anything. 

MacIntyre told Volquest he expects a few other highly-touted players will choose the Vols, including:

◼️ 4-star safety Lagonza Hayward
◼️ 4-star offensive tackle Jaelyne Matthews
◼️ 4-star receiver Travis Smith

Tennessee has a good chance with those guys — along with several other big-time prospects — considering the buzz from last weekend. 

Remember: other schools are saying the same things following their visitor weekends.

The month of June will serve as a major recruiting month, with the Vols set to host official visitors starting on the weekend of June 7.

We still have more than six months to go before players will sign national letters of intent. 

That means a college football season has to be played first. 

But the next four weeks will play a big role in how Tennessee’s 2025 class comes together. 

Add it to your watchlist as a fan… if you have room.

And check out our latest conversation with Austin Price of Volquest talking David Sanders Jr. and the latest with Tennessee’s recruiting.

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