Ready or not, Tennessee opener is upon us

Marvin Westwestwords

Ready or not, the show starts Saturday.

Unless another blockade is placed on the runway, Tennessee’s Volunteers will fly into Columbia to do battle with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Strange as it sounds, this could be the pivotal game of the season.

Win the opener and good things can happen. Lose it and whatever race develops will be uphill.

There is no way to know if the Vols are properly prepared. All doors have been closed and windows covered (to keep out the virus or nosey reporters?).

Nobody has seen anything. We keep hearing, unofficially, that keywords for practice have been “limited” and “careful” instead of vigorous.

We do know Tennessee was not vigorous in the 2019 opener. There is proof positive, Georgia State 38-30. Perhaps it was a learning experience.

This is another world. Just being alive is quite different from being ready to play SEC football. It is, traditionally, rugged hand-to-hand combat.

Preseason preparation is a balancing act. Smart coaches try to reduce the risk of losing key players to injuries. Smart coaches want enough blocking and tackling in practice to establish the spirit of football. It is not easy to accomplish both goals at the same time.

If one team is physically and mentally ready and the other has been playing two-hand touch, bad things happen. There was an eerie example earlier in the mouth in Annapolis, Brigham Young 55, Navy 3.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt is a crusty enough guy. He doesn’t alibi but it appeared he directed the past three weeks of work with one hand tied behind him. A lot of Tennessee players missed a lot of precious practice time because of contact tracing. The virus threat has been worse than the virus.

Having so many seniors reduces that impact. They didn’t have to start at the beginning, learning their ABCs.

Several very young Vols do figure in the outlook. Jabari Small and Tee Hodge are projected as reserve running backs. Jalin Hyatt and Malachi Wideman will almost certainly play as wide receivers.

Hyatt is really fast and comes with an impressive background. His high school team, Dutch Fork in Irmo, S.C., has won four consecutive state championships.

“We have a lot of young receivers, and one thing about all of them is they can run,” Pruitt said. “They’re really fast.”

Dee Beckwith, 6-5 and 220, is the equivalent of a baseball utility player. He has practiced as a wide receiver, tight end and running back. He was a big quarterback in high school.

Freshman guard Javontez Spraggins, strong and aggressive, has supposedly had a good preseason. He had ample opportunity while experienced linemen were absent.

Spraggins may turn into a recruiting steal. He came to a Tennessee camp last summer just to help classmates in a 7-on-7 skill event. He was their center. UT coaches noticed exceptional agility for his size. They asked him to step aside and do individual drills. They offered a scholarship on the spot. Javontez said OK.

Later, he was the big dog (6-3, 338) up front for an Illinois 6A state championship team that racked up 104 touchdowns. College coaches bumped into each other clamoring for his attention. Javontez wasn’t interested. He was bound for Tennessee.

Recruiting is rarely that simple.

Keshawn Lawrence might be the best defensive freshmanVersatility is an asset – free or strong safety or even star corner. He has exceptional athleticism.

Morven Joseph and Tyler Baron are going to have an opportunity to get after some quarterbacks. Bryson Eason, inside linebacker, is a “thumper.” Omari Thomas may break in as a defensive end.

Doneiko Slaughter has excellent instincts in coverage. He can play the star corner.

As football is almost everywhere, quarterback will be a win-or-lose position for the Vols. The job belongs to Jarrett Guarantano. There was no race. J.T. Shrout is the probable No. 2. Brian Maurer and freshman Harrison Bailey missed essential practice time.

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said a whole lot when he said “You got to perform with consistency at quarterback. That’s where I’d say Jarrett needs to be better.”

Guarantano, for the first time, didn’t have to start over in preparation. Same system and same coaches might lead to different results.

“It feels way more comfortable. I feel like my mind’s not going 100,000 different places,” Guarantano said.

“I have a pre-snap read, a post-snap read, and being able to really, truly understand the ins and outs of the offense allows me to move faster. It allows me to see things come open way quicker and deliver the ball more on time and accurately.”

Oh my, let us hope that happens.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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