🏈 Tennessee's first offensive hurdle for 2023

The latest from the Vols' camp

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:

  • How Tennessee manages the short-term loss of a key offensive player

  • National hype for Joe Milton, Tennessee goes up a notch

  • Quote of the week from Tennessee’s press conferences

  • Zakai Zeigler updates his status and brags on new teammates

TENNESSEE’S CENTER FOCUS ON OFFENSE

Cooper Mays’ status is the big question of fall

Tennessee’s football team completed its first phase of fall camp on Thursday.

The Vols held their first scrimmage, an important step in the coaches evaluating players for this season.

There’s always a seesaw of opinions when a team scrimmages.

If the defensive line does well, what does that say about the offensive line?

The same goes for a wide receiver winning a matchup. What does that tell us about the defensive backfield?

There was no dispute coming out of Thursday’s action: the defense got the best of Tennessee’s offense during the scrimmage.

Surprised, considering we’re talking about Josh Heupel’s offense?

Don’t be. Remember: the defense usually starts out ahead of the offense during fall camp.

This camp is no different, especially with personnel changes from last season.

There’s another factor to consider. And it’s the most important subject coming out of the scrimmage.

Tennessee is playing without center Cooper Mays.

Heupel announced on Thursday that Mays had a “minor procedure late (Wednesday).”

“He’ll be back,” Heupel said. “He’ll be healthy as we get close to kickoff. I anticipate that being a couple-week deal.”

So will Mays be back in 2-3 weeks, meaning before the season begins? Or could this stretch longer?

Mays is an important piece — arguably the most important — of Tennessee’s offense.

“When people talk about Tennessee,” Jayson Swain said Thursday, “the first thing they talk about is tempo on offense. … Well, who sets the tempo? The center.”

Mays is the anchor of Tennessee’s O-line, which also has to replace star right tackle Darnell Wright and experienced left guard Jerome Carvin.

Mays and Carvin were Tennessee’s most important communicators on the O-line last season.

With Mays out, the Vols have one starter in the same position as last season: right guard Javontez Spraggins.

What will Tennessee do without Mays?

The conversation begins with senior Ollie Lane.

Lane has battled for the starting left guard spot, but he can slide over to center.

Lane’s experience in the offense should help Tennessee continue to push the tempo and operate the offense efficiently.

Sophomore Addison Nichols is another option, either at center or guard.

Jackson Lampley and Andrej Karic can also play guard if Lane moves to center.

Karic, a transfer from Texas, was reportedly “banged up” in practice this week.

Tennessee also has Parker Ball and freshman Vysen Lang as options.

But everyone at Tennessee will agree: getting Mays back healthy will be the priority for the Vols’ offensive line.

Here are other takeaways from the Vols’ first scrimmage:

➡️ The defensive line looks legit.

Coach Rodney Rodney praised the group’s maturity this week. And transfer Omarr Norman-Lott looks like a player.

“I definitely think Omarr Lott is an upgrade for us,” Garner said.

Senior edge Tyler Baron received praise from Garner for buying into the team concept this offseason.

Baron is one of Tennessee’s most important defenders.

➡️ Tennessee’s receivers look ready.

Veterans got a break on Thursday, but Tennessee’s big four of Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy, Dont’e Thornton and Squirrel White look the part.

And second-year receivers Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb continue to show signs that they’ll help in the future.

➡️ Andre Turrentine is making a push at safety.

The former four-star recruit and 2022 Ohio State transfer could land a starting spot.

Competition at safety is deep and will continue through the rest of camp (and likely into the season).

And at cornerback, veterans like Kamal Hadden and Brandon Turnage have remained in the mix for a starting spot despite the push from newcomers.

➡️ Tennessee’s new kickers have performed well.

Placekicker Charles Campbell has a ton of experience from his time at Indiana.

And punter Jackson Ross can use both legs. (Say what?)

JOE MILTON = VERY IMPORTANT

You didn’t think we’d forget Joe Milton III today, did you?

He was the biggest topic of the off-season for Tennessee.

And according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Milton is the nation’s most important player in the 2023 College Football Playoff discussion.

“If (Milton) still takes too many sacks and toes the wrong side of the line between patience and slow decision-making, he'll probably end the year on the bench behind five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. But if he's firing quickly to Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White and fully harnessing the explosiveness of both Josh Heupel's offense and his own right arm -- he's almost certainly got the strongest arm in college football -- then the sky's the limit for Tennessee. Forget spoiler talk and put them in the national title conversation.”

 

Connelly wrote the above one day after joining Josh and Swain.

Connelly’s SP+ rankings have been high on Heupel’s Tennessee teams in the last two years.

Last year, SP+ had Tennessee in the top 10 before the season began.

This year’s SP+ has ranked the Vols No. 6 in the nation.

“Even with a quarterback change, it’s hard to doubt Josh Heupel at this point,” Connelly said on the show.

There are other factors to consider.

The offensive line, as noted above, is one.

And then there’s the defense.

The SP+ numbers ranked Tennessee’s defense No. 21 in the nation last season.

What if the Vols improve on that side of the ball this year or at least play at a similar level?

“If they have enough there that they’re not suffering any sort of major regression, especially up front, then they should be fine. There’s also some balance here. If the offense takes a couple of steps backward and the defense takes a couple of steps forward, everything’s fine. But we understand with Heupel that they’re going to see a lot of plays, they’re going to see a lot of drives. They’re going to get into track meets occasionally. But they made enough stops last year to win big. That’s kind of the model for this unit. They don’t have to be top five. If they can be last year’s defense, that’s going to win a lot of games.”

Connelly isn’t alone in seeing big-time potential for Tennessee this year.

But no one has seemed higher on the Vols.

Check out our full interview with Bill Connelly, who shared more thoughts on Tennessee and the Vols’ SEC opponents for the upcoming season. ⬇️⬇️

SPORTS NUGGETS

🏈 Dennis Dodd has which teams in the CFB Playoff?! (And see where he has Tennessee playing in the postseason.)

🏈 Tennessee landed at No. 10 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. (The AP Poll will come out on Monday at noon ET.)

🏈 More Iowa and Iowa State football players have been charged in a sports betting probe.

🏈 The NFL’s first week of the preseason is underway. Here’s one thing to watch for all 32 teams.

⚽ Proof that Bill Connelly is a madman: He helped write ESPN’s team-by-team preview for the English Premier League season, which begins this weekend.

⚽ Striker Harry Kane is on the move from Tottenham to Bayern Munich.

Best MLB story of the week: Michael Lorenzon throwing a no-hitter in his home debut for the Phillies — and celebrating on the field with his mom, wife, and nine-month-old daughter.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Tennessee left tackle John Campbell Jr. became a fan favorite this week.

The transfer from Miami met the media and admitted he didn’t think he would choose Tennessee when he entered the portal.

He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to take a visit.

“Coming to Tennessee, I thought it was just going to be flat land,” he admitted.

Campbell decided to visit Knoxville and discovered “it’s a city.”

And then Tennessee showed off the good stuff.

“They’ve got Waffle House,” Campbell said. “That’s a place I like. At ‘The U,’ there wasn’t really a Waffle House. It was like 40 minutes away.”

Campbell’s entire press conference was entertaining. It was also telling as he described the endorsements Tennessee received from coach Charlie Strong and All-Pro offensive tackle Trent Williams.

ONE LAST BYTE OUT THE DOOR

Zakai Zeigler and the Tennessee basketball team returned from a trip to Italy on Wednesday night.

Zeigler sat out the Vols’ three exhibition games as he’s working to return from the torn ACL he suffered on Feb. 28.

Zeigler admitted on Josh and Swain he was nervous about beginning the rehab process.

But since it began, the medical staff and Rick Barnes have had to hold him back and focus on the protocol they had planned.

Zeigler wouldn’t commit to an exact target date to return at full speed without restrictions.

It’s obvious he’s working to return full-go as quickly as possible — with an eye on Tennessee’s regular-season opener on Nov. 6.

“They ask me how I feel and every day I always say, ‘I’m good with this.’ There are some days I say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling it today. I don’t know what’s going on but my knee hurts.’ For the most part, I always go in there and I try to push through whatever type of pain I’m in. Unless the pain is sudden pain shutting me down, I’m just going to try to fight through it all.”

Zeigler is eager to play with this Tennessee basketball team.

The Vols brought back several key players from last year’s team — Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi included — to go with newcomers who will change the team’s look.

Zeigler believes the new roster will give Tennessee more options on offense.

We have a lot of guys that can go off the dribble. They can create their own shot (and) create for others. At any given moment, anybody can go get their own basket. I feel like that’s going to be a big difference in this year’s team.”

Check out the full conversation with Zakai Zeigler, who joined us live at The Bed Store’s new Kingston Pike location in Knoxville. ⬇️⬇️

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