Which Vol freshmen will play?

Marvin Westwestwords

Disclaimer: This is not an endorsement or an advertisement for gambling, no way, no sir, but you might find it interesting to try to pick which Tennessee football freshmen will play in the September 1 opener against Ball State.

Or, play any time in the 2022 season.

Which young Volunteers will make a big difference or help win a game? Doesn’t happen all that often and there are 15 returning starters and improved depth – but this appears to be an exceptional group of newcomers.

We’ll see.

“There will be some young guys that in week one are going to play a bunch of minutes,” said Josh Heupel. “Some young guys will continue to earn playing time as they go through the season. So, it’s a constant race to become the best that you can be.”

Speed? Running back Dylan Sampson and slot receiver Squirrel White are possibilities on the kickoff return team.

When Len’Neth Whitehead went down with a season-ending injury, Justin Williams-Thomas’ chances went up as a power runner with added potential to break a long run.

Assistant coach Mike Ekeler said just the other day that linebackers Elijah Herring and Kalib Perry and safety Jourdan Thomas can help on special teams. There will be others.

Offensive line play can get complicated. Serious thinking is involved. Rare is the freshman who can get ready in time.

Addison Nichols, 6-5 and 318, projects as a future center. He is also getting practice as a guard. That says versatility. It also says coaches see immediate possibilities if needed.

Part of the reason freshmen don’t typically contribute early is because they have to learn how to be college players, how to practice with a purpose. There was an example on Haslam Field a few days ago.

Defensive linemen were going through something called a chute drill, stay low, quick feet. Tyre West did it well enough that very demanding coach Rodney Garner didn’t demand “do it again” but the young tackle realized he could do better. He ran to the back of the line, waited his way to the front and repeated his performance.

Motivation, focus, intensity? All practices are video recorded. West is likely to play.

Jayson Jenkins, 6-6 and 280, is a defensive end who can play tackle. That doubles his chances.

James Pearce and Joshua Josephs, four-star prospects as edge rushers, might get early opportunities to fill voids.

Quarterback Tayven Jackson is a highly regarded freshman but is third on the depth chart. If he plays, it will be just for experience or because of injuries, Heaven forbid.

Vacancies could affect wide receivers Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod and maybe others.

In times past, freshman receivers and freshman running backs raced for early honors. In 1997, SEC freshman of the year Jamal Lewis had 232 carries for 1,364 yards. Kelley Washington (2001), former professional baseball player who never looked like a freshman but was one in football eligibility, caught 64 passes for 1,010 yards.

What a story Washington was. He proclaimed himself “The Future.”

Assistant coach Randy Sanders told him, in the present, he was tipping plays by how he lined up and to stop it. Washington did it again. Jason Witten threatened to whip his butt. Washington, wise beyond his years, wanted no part of Witten.

Other freshman receivers who excelled? Stanley Morgan (1973), 22 receptions, 511 yards, four TDs; Justin Hunter (2010), Marquez North (2013).

Tight end Reggie Harper caught 30 passes for 331 yards and a touchdown. He was a Freshman All-American.

Young runners who made a difference, some because of ability, some because of need: Chuck Webb (1989), 1,236 yards on 209 carries; Aaron Hayden, 784 yards (and 99 as a receiver). James Stewart (1991) and Arian Foster (2005) made an impact.

As a freshman in ‘89, Carl Pickens had 594 kick return yards and a touchdown.

Linebacker A.J. Johnson made 80 tackles. Bill Bates made 55 tackles as a strong safety. John Becksvoort kicked the extra point that beat Notre Dame. Jeff Hall scored 95 points as a rookie.

As a freshman in ‘07, safety Eric Berry crashed through expectations with his exceptional nose for the football and a penchant for knocking ball carriers into oblivion. Tackle Trey Smith signaled great things to come. Michael Munoz made a difference. There were others.

Peyton Manning, most prolific passer in the history of Tennessee football, became the No. 1 quarterback earlier than expected – following injuries to Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton and handwriting on the wall for Branndon Stewart.

Peyton played in 10 games as a freshman in 1994. He started eight. His rookie record was 7-1. He and the Vols were defeated by Alabama. All was not lost.

Tide quarterback Scott Hunter saw the same handwriting on the wall and said: “My, my, this kid is going to be a good one.”

OK, some freshmen are better than others.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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