2021 NCAA Top 25 Preview: No. 19 Tennessee
Last year: 15-2
Final ranking: No. 23
Coach (record at school): Tony Vitello (84-50, 3 years)
Top 200 draft prospects: 2B Max Ferguson (No. 45), 3B Jake Rucker (No. 131)
The good news: Tennessee appears to have fully turned a corner under Vitello, as it followed a regional appearance in 2019 with a 15-2 record in 2020. Going into 2021, the Volunteers return an athletic lineup led by third-year sophomore second baseman Max Ferguson, third-year sophomore third baseman Jake Rucker and fourth-year junior shortstop Liam Spence, which gives the team three shortstop-quality athletes on the infield. All three also had outstanding 2020 seasons offensively, and they’ll be helped in 2021 by the return of third-year sophomore catcher Connor Pavolony, fifth-year junior first baseman Luc Lipcius, second-year freshman center fielder Drew Gilbert and second-year freshman right fielder Jordan Beck, who Vitello sees as a future first-round talent. And while they don’t have a returning ready-made ace like Garrett Crochet on the mound, the Vols have stocked up on high-end arms that give the pitching staff a high ceiling.
The bad news: The Volunteers should hit for average quite well in 2021, but with outfielders Alerick Soularie and Zach Daniels, the two best power hitters on last year’s team, drafted and now in pro baseball, there’s a need for someone to step up and bring some pop to the lineup. Obvious candidates include Pavolony, who slugged .737 last season, and Beck, who has just begun to scratch the surface of what he can become. Tennessee also doesn’t have a pitcher in its projected rotation who has been a starter in SEC play, so while the likes of fourth-year junior righthander Jackson Leath, third-year sophomore righthander Chad Dallas and third-year sophomore righthander Elijah Pleasants all have good stuff and put up good numbers in 2020, it’s a different animal to get it done once punches start flying in conference play.
Player to know: Jackson Leath, RHP.
Leath was used in a couple of different roles last season and dominated throughout, posting a 1.45 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 18.2 innings. Now, Tennessee will look for him to transition to starting full-time, and more specifically, serve as the team’s Friday starter. His stuff is plenty good, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s but can touch 96 or 97 mph at times and a slider that’s a wipeout pitch when it’s at its best. But the workload of being an SEC weekend starter will be new. Last season, he never threw more than 4.2 innings in any outing, including in two starts, and in 2019 at Blinn (Texas) JC, he threw a total of 61.1 innings across 13 appearances. Having Leath take to starting well would be a great development in Tennessee’s quest to take its next big step.
Path to Omaha: Step one for Tennessee is to show that its hot start to 2020 was no mirage (and that its season-ending series loss at home to Wright State was a one-off). From there, the lineup has a chance to be one of the deepest in the SEC and should go a long way toward getting Tennessee back into the postseason. What would take the team to the next level and turn it into an Omaha contender is the rotation proving that it’s ready to take on the SEC for an entire season.
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|C||Connor Pavolony, R-So.||.342||.395||.737||38||4||12|
|1B||Luc Lipcius, R-Jr.||.326||.395||.674||43||2||15|
|2B||Max Ferguson, R-So.||.333||.462||.524||42||2||6|
|3B||Jake Rucker, R-So.||.339||.425||.581||62||3||13|
|SS||Liam Spenc, R-Jr.||.346||.462||.462||52||1||12|
|LF||Evan Russell, R-Jr.||.271||.393||.458||48||2||12|
|CF||Drew Gilbert, R-Fr.||.350||.490||.500||40||1||8|
|RF||Jordan Beck, R-Fr.||.275||.396||.475||40||1||9|
|DH||Jorel Ortega, R-Fr.||Did not play -- Redshirt|
|RHP||Jackson Leath, R-Jr.||4||0||1.45||19||29||0|
|RHP||Chad Dallas, R-So.||3||0||2.53||21||21||0|
|RHP||Elijah Plesants, R-So.||1||0||1.42||13||9||0|
|RP||Sean Hunley, R-Jr.||0||0||0.54||17||14||3|
|RP||Redmond Walsh, R-Jr.||1||1||0.00||12||10||2|