Winning with freshmen

Marvin Westwestwords

The General was no fluke.

As a Tennessee football coach, Robert R. Neyland combined what he knew about military strategy and engineering principles to produce a remarkable (or phenomenal) record of 173-31-12.

He wasn’t much for catchy slogans but he left behind fundamentals that are set in stone. The team that makes the fewest mistakes really does most often win.

In 106 games, his teams blanked the opposition. Think about it –106 shutouts, no points. Zero. Zilch.

Neyland believed football was for men. It was OK for boys to practice as they matured and grew wiser and stronger but the outcome of Southeastern Conference combat was much too serious to entrust to the inexperienced.

Ah yes, experience – there is the winning edge.

Neyland said, in any season when he was caught short on experience, he expected to lose one game for each sophomore in the starting lineup.

The Flamin’ Sophomores were the exception – but that was before the SEC was born.

To fit this modern era, with different eligibility rules and far less conviction, do update that assumption. Change sophomore to freshman.

Numbers backed up his belief but the sport has changed and the General is long gone, reduced to history and a bronze statue. Change the time to now and the name to Butch Jones.

Coach Jones values experience. He understands the difference in talking football and actually playing it. He uses every smart tool he has heard about to teach the basics but realizes there is more learning to come.

Could be he has read Roger Ascham’s “The Schoolmaster” from whence came the proverb “One learns more from experience than from books.”

Or chalk talks.

Or video loops.

Or even subliminal whispers.

From the beginning, Butch has been trying to establish dependable, experienced depth. His goal is to fill all voids with Vols who have played.

That plan would be fulfilled at quarterback, for example, if junior Quinten Dormady wins the job. If Jarrett Guarantano emerges as No. 1, the spirit of Neyland will flinch. Guarantano has never played a down with the lights on and the multitude screaming.

But, but, but you say, Jarrett can play. He has elite ability. We think he’ll be great. He might start the opener, experience be damned.

Several other young Volunteers are threatening this “experience” strategy. Freshman Trey Smith is a projected starter at right offensive guard. He is too big and too good to be denied.

Freshmen Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan and maybe Trey Coleman will appear as running backs behind John Kelly.

Freshman Josh Palmer has risen rapidly among receivers. He is the athletic young Canadian who moved to Florida for finishing school to become a college player.

There is a loophole for runners and receivers. It is easier for skill players to break into rotations as rookies if they are fast enough and strong enough. Think Herschel Walker. If you can run over or fly past people, how much you don’t know matters less.

Young safety Theo Jackson has exceeded expectations in practices. Corners Shawn Shamburger and Cheyenne Labruzza may play. All three have necessary physical abilities and appear to be quick learners but pass defense and run support involve critical decisions.

Team needs may dictate early appearances by defensive linemen Deandre Johnson and Matthew Butler. They were early enrollees who have made steady progress. Alas, they have no experience.

There you see the blinking caution light. After four years of building, Butch still lacks experienced depth at some positions. Evaluation of high school prospects is a factor. Recruiting is a factor. Development is a factor. Injuries and departures created shortages.

Can the Vols win enough big games despite inexperience? Certainly.

Neyland wasn’t always right.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]



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