Time out for Vol baskets, time in for football

Marvin Westwestwords

This is a basketball timeout.

Rick Barnes’ team will next appear on Friday afternoon (3/15/24) in the SEC tournament in Nashville – against the winner of Mississippi State-LSU.

There is a difference. The Bulldogs defeated the Volunteers in Starkville, 77-72. The Vols walloped the Tigers by 20 at Food City Center.

Distinction for LSU was an upset victory over Kentucky. Give that some thought.

Between now and the weekend, Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Gainey will go to school on who and how to guard Reed Sheppard, Kentucky freshman who hit seven of 10 three-point attempts.

Vols and Wildcats could meet again on Sunday.


Tennessee spring football practice begins next Monday. Josh Heupel will soon tell us what we already know, that this is now Nico’s team.

The coach will imply “for better or worse” but we all expect better quarterbacking because of Nico Iamaleava’s quick feet and quick mind. He can read the field. He processes information promptly. He can make all the throws. He can escape the rush and turn broken plays into gains.

I’m reasonably confident Nico can win.

If you are a relative or NIL partner of someone playing defense for Tennessee, ask them to touch instead of tackle Nico in spring drills. He projects as the key to September and beyond.


The Vols do have a quarterback question: Who is No. 2?

Could be walk-on Gaston Moore, veteran in the group, Heupel devotee when they were in Central Florida, transfer to Tennessee when the coach got a better job. Gaston certainly knows the offense. He was the primary reserve in the past two Tennessee bowl games.

Could be four-star signee Jake Merklinger. He is considered an exceptional freshman. Hopefully, he will learn enough fast enough. Hopefully, he won’t be needed.


Bigger question is the secondary. Almost everybody who helped produce poor numbers in past seasons is gone.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks and/or cornerbacks coach Willie Martinez insisted on deploying experienced defensive backs (despite minimum results) instead of more athletic youngsters who might have learned on the job.

The pendulum has swung. Just guessing new starters might be Jermod McCoy, Andre Turrentine and Jourdan Thomas. Looking for another corner to raise his hand.


Experience and inexperience will be on display at linebacker. The Vols have one grand old man, Keenan Pili, 26 in May, husband, father, twice captain at Brigham Young before his move to Tennessee.

Pili suffered a season-ending arm injury in the first half of the first game last season. He served as a student coach. He said the younger linebackers have a bright future.

“They didn’t look like young guys … they looked like they’ve been playing the game … I couldn’t be more excited being a part of that room.”

Pili was probably talking about Arion Carter, Jeremiah Telander, Kalib Perry, Elijah Herring, four-star freshman Edwin Spillman and perhaps others.

William Inge, former coach at Washington, is the new coach of Vol linebackers. He chose the Tennessee job over an offer from Alabama.


The Vols are blessed with veteran offensive linemen (center Cooper Mays is the leader) and a major addition, LSU transfer tackle Lance Heard. Tight ends are new – redshirt freshman Ethan Davis and two transfers.

The experienced defensive front will seek to identify the next best pass rusher to go with James Pearce. There will be a tournament to find a No. 3 running back behind Dylan Sampson and Cam Seldon.

Of course, wide receivers are already best friends with Nico. There are three categories, stars-to-be Bru McCoy and Squirrel White, prize newcomers Mike Matthews, Braylon Staley and transfer Chris Brazzell and a large developmental group that hasn’t exactly arrived.


Schedule: Tough enough. Interesting September 21 assignment at Norman to welcome Oklahoma to the SEC; trip down memory lane for Heupel, quarterback for the national champion Sooners of 2000.

Crossroads: Mid-October, Florida and Alabama back-to-back at very special Neyland Stadium.

Title time or wishful thinking: November 16 at Georgia.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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