Welcome to our weekly column, “The State of the Vols.” Here we summarize and analyze the previous week’s action while looking forward to the coming week for Vol football, basketball, and Lady Vol basketball. Check back next Monday for volume 4.
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Football: The Vols were scheduled to host five visitors over the weekend, yet a combination of factors, including icy roads, kept three prospects from traveling to Knoxville. Four-star linebacker E.J. Levenberry was ill and didn’t make it to campus. Currently, Levenberry is hoping to visit Tennessee sometime this week/weekend. Antonio Riles, a 4-star defensive end and Florida commit, didn’t travel to Knoxville and looks unlikely to do so. Riles was a long shot to sign with the Vols even if he made it to campus. Another scheduled visitor, 4-star linebacker Zach Cunningham, chose not to take an official visit to Tennessee over the weekend. He is likely to commit to Auburn and looks like he’ll end up signing with the Tigers.
Fortunately for Tennessee, 5-star safety Vonn Bell made it to campus and had a wonderful official visit. Along with Tennessee’s staff and a handful of other prospects, he attended the Tennessee-Alabama basketball game. The recruits and staff got an ovation from the crowd and chants of “Vonn Bell!” broke out during timeouts. Bell didn’t expect anything like that and his campus trip appears to have made an impact. Joining Bell, another highly rated recruit made it to Knoxville despite the conditions; 4-star quarterback Joshua Dobbs. An Arizona State commit, Dobbs is Tennessee’s best chance at adding another quarterback to this class (4-star QB Riley Ferguson is firmly committed to the Vols). He has not been reached for comment, but the Vols appear in position to factor into his final decision.
Jason Carr, a 4-star defensive end and Vol commitment, traveled back to Knoxville over the weekend on an unofficial visit, in part to help recruit Bell to the Vols. If there were any doubts about Carr signing with the Vols, they are gone after his campus trip. He is Tennessee’s highest rated commitment and holding on to him after Alabama’s push to land him is a big win for this class.
The Vols received a surprise visit from 4-star linebacker Trey Johnson. Rated as the No. 2 inside linebacker in this class nationally, Johnson is committed to Ohio State but has a strong relationship with Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who recruited him when he was committed to the Tigers. Johnson may be looking to play closer to home or in the SEC, and the Vols have a shot at landing one of the top prospects in the country. He’s one to keep an eye on and we’ll continue to monitor his recruitment moving forward.
Johnathan Ford, a 4-star running back committed to Vanderbilt, was thought to be considering an unofficial trip to Knoxville over the weekend. He took an official visit to Auburn instead, and though he’s committed to the Commodores, he’s more likely to sign with the Tigers or Vols.
Obviously, it’s a massively busy week in the recruiting world and I’ll have more information on each visitor in a recruiting recap late this afternoon. Look for an update on the status of several Vol targets in the middle of the week and as a visitor schedule forms for this week, I’ll publish a comprehensive preview.
Basketball: The Vols went 1-1 last week, as expected, but had a shot at going 2-0. Poor execution down the stretch doomed the Vols to a loss at Ole Miss Thursday night. Tennessee went 0-4 from the field and 0-4 from the free throw line in the final three minutes of play and the Rebels escaped with a 62-56 win. As in losses at Alabama and Kentucky, the Vols didn’t make the plays needed to win down the stretch on either end of the floor. The Rebels rank third nationally in scoring, and UT held them to just 18 points in the first half. The Vol defense softened in the final twenty minutes of play and allowed the SEC’s leading scorer, Marshall Henderson, to score 24 second-half points.
Fortunately, Tennessee rebounded against a surging Alabama team Saturday afternoon. The Vols finally executed when it mattered, hit big shots, and played solid defense in key moments on the way to a 54-53 win. Jarnell Stokes turned in one of his best games as a Vol with 15 points and 18 rebounds, and Alabama had no answer for him. When Stokes plays with that kind of aggressiveness, Tennessee is a very dangerous team; one that can make a push to climb back into the hunt for an NCAA bid.
Tennessee takes on Vanderbilt (8-10, 2-4 SEC) at home Tuesday (7 p.m. ESPNU) before traveling to Arkansas (12-7, 3-3 SEC) Saturday (4 p.m. ESPN). The Vols hope to take care of business against a struggling Commodore team at home before picking up their first road win of the year at Arkansas to go 2-0 on the week.
Lady Vols: Holly Warlick’s squad played just one game last week and picked up an 83-75 win at Vanderbilt. Taber Spani was huge for the Lady Vols and scored 24 points on 8-14 shooting. She has battled injuries throughout her career but looks healthy and is making a definite impact on this team. Meighan Simmons continues to play brilliantly and scored 23 points in Tennessee’s road win over Vanderbilt. The Lady Vols, picked to finish 4th in the SEC, are the lone undefeated team in conference play at 7-0.
While the Lady Vols continue to surpass expectations, they’ll receive a huge test tonight when they host No. 2 Notre Dame (18-1) at 7 p.m (ESPN2). Tennessee will be hoisting a banner honoring Pat Summitt and fans are encouraged to be in their seats 30 minutes before tip to see the entire banner ceremony. The Lady Vols haven’t proven they can beat the top teams in basketball (with losses to Stanford and Baylor) and will have to play their best game of the season tonight to pick up the victory. If Cierra Burdick didn’t have a broken hand, I’d be inclined to pick the Lady Vols but have to go with Notre Dame tonight considering Burdick’s injury.
Tennessee hosts Mississippi State Thursday night (7 p.m. CSS) before playing at Missouri Sunday (2 p.m. CSS). Look for the Lady Vols to go 2-1 on the week and maintain their one game lead over Kentucky in the SEC standings.