Every year, we get excited about a prospect or two once they step onto the practice field and actually begin looking like Southeastern Conference players.
This season, the names of more newcomers than normal seem to be popping up in practice reports and in scrimmage starting lineups, prompting many to speculate that we'll get to watch the coaching staff use their shiny, new toys a little more than we're used to seeing for the second season in a row.
There are several first-year players who'll be on the field for Tennessee, many because they've earned it and a few because we have no other choice but to plant them in the depth chart and hope they grow quickly. One thing is certain -- we'll all have the opportunity to see firsthand how good a recruiter coach Derek Dooley is when the season starts.His first full class will be represented all over the field, complimenting the numerous freshmen from last year who were forced into action.
After speaking to several folks who've consistently watched practices these past few weeks, here are my top 10 newcomers who've had the best camps and the biggest impacts so far. Most of these guys will be firmly in the mix for playing time when we kick off against Montana in a little more than a week. The others will be key cogs in a fine future.
So, let's take a look at them. They don't quite stack up exactly like I'd planned heading into summer camp, that's for sure.
10. Kyler Kerbyson 6-5, 305 Fr. OT
Perhaps a surprise to many on the list, the Knoxville product had offers from Alabama, Southern Cal and Florida for a reason. He has come in ready to compete for playing time on a deep and talented line. Though the coaching staff would love to redshirt Kerbyson, he is a versatile security blanket who already has played guard and tackle. He's probably more polished than fellow freshman Alan Posey, so he's been bumped out a position to back up Dallas Thomas and Ja'Wuan James alongside Antonio "Big Tiny" Richardson. Richardson probably would have made the list, but he's been too banged up for us to see much from him so far.
9. Marcus Jackson 6-3, 326 Fr. OG
An elite-level true freshman, the former Miami commitment exited the spring considered a co-starter at a guard spot by Dooley. After a rocky start to camp, he has bumped back to the second team, which takes a lot of pressure off a player that has a huge upside but may not have to be needed this year. I imagine Jackson will play a good bit anyway, but with Alex Bullard and Zach Fulton seemingly entrenched at guard and JerQuari Schofield as a backup, Jackson shifts back to firmly on the second team. Still, he is the strongest offensive lineman on the team and only needs to learn all the calls before he's a force.
8. Maurice Couch 6-2, 305 RS So. DT
The coaches were hoping they'd be able to get a lot out of Couch and that the four-star defensive tackle would come out of the JUCO ranks ready to step in and contribute immediately. He will, but Couch hasn't wowed like some thought he may thus far in camp. He's somewhat out of shape, and he has had a difficult time adjusting to conditioning. He is expected to play 20-25 snaps a game, and he'll have to contribute out of necessity, but Vols fans were probably hoping to see him much higher on this list.
7. DeAnthony Arnett 6-0, 175 Fr. WR
The coaches love Arnett's quickness and route-running, and that could translate into a starting nod in the opening game if Zach Rogers can't go. Arnett was the No. 3 receiver in the mock game Wednesday night, and after a slow start, he has really caught on and improved every day of camp. Everybody in the country wanted the Saginaw, Mich., standout, and it appears UT got a coup. He may get a chance to fill Gerald Jones' shoes earlier than normal. Regardless, he and classmate Vincent Dallas will probably find themselves in the rotation this year, and both have had their moments this fall.
6. Izauea Lanier 6-1, 190 RS So. CB
One of the biggest winners of Janzen Jackson getting booted off the team stands to be Lanier, the East Mississippi Community College cornerback. Lanier has impressed coaches with his size and physical play this spring and has moved into a clear backup cornerback position. The former Auburn commitment had offers from Florida and Ole Miss, among others, but he chose UT, and he will help immediately. He has great speed for his size and can give the Vols the ability to match up better against some of the conference's bigger receivers.
5. Marlin Lane 6-0, 205 Fr. TB
Vols fans were desperately hoping that Lane would be the real deal when he committed to UT following a brief flirtation late in the signing period. He'd been dropped by Clemson after an incident he was later cleared on, and the Vols swooped in and got him to commit to them over Miami, Auburn and Florida State, among others. Lane has not disappointed this fall. He and fellow freshman Tom Smith have been solid enough that coaches have moved former second-string tailback Rajion Neal to receiver. Lane is getting second-team carries and has looked effective and even explosive at times. He is also in the mix to return punts, possibly starting.
4. A.J. Johnson 6-3, 245 Fr. OLB
One of the two-headed freshman monster UT plays to deploy at linebacker this season, Johnson has flashed the ability to make huge plays and not find himself out of position too much. Though he isn't blessed with top-shelf lateral speed, he's very instinctive and has found himself around the ball very much in camp. Dooley has done nothing but praise the Gainesville, Ga., product, and Johnson is proving why he was the Vols' top linebacking target for nearly two years and through two coaching staffs.
3. Justin Coleman 5-10, 183 Fr. CB
Few UT followers had heard of the Brunswick, Ga., standout when he chose the Vols over Kentucky last summer, but everybody knows his name now. Coleman went from little-known three-star player to one of a loaded state of Georgia's top 15 players as a senior. This year, he's gone from down on the depth chart to a starting cornerback a week before the Vols play Montana. The former mid-term enrollee grasped Justin Wilcox's defense as well as any newcomer in the spring, and his fearless play has led coaches to trust him enough to throw him to the wolves as a first-teamer. Pretty impressive for a true freshman.
2. Alex Bullard 6-2, 309 RS So. OG
The versatile transfer from Notre Dame was coveted by Phillip Fulmer and the Vols out of high school, but he decided to take his talents north. After the untimely death of his father, Bullard decided to move closer to home, and the Vols appear to have gotten a steal. Mired on the depth chart in South Bend, Bullard didn't get to play much, but he has worked his way into a starting role on a talented line. After getting reps at center, he has moved over to guard and solidified the line, taking freshman Marcus Jackson's spot. Bullard's versatility makes him valuable, but Dooley just loves that the second player in as many years [Brent Brewer] fell into his lap by way of a walk-on.
1. Curt Maggitt 6-3, 215 Fr. OLB
I was told by several folks that Bullard probably belonged in the top spot over Maggitt, but I just can't get over all the praise Dooley and his teammates have shed on the fast outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid who UT stole from underneath Florida's nose late in the recruiting period. Maggitt and Johnson were inserted into the starting lineup early in camp, and nobody has looked back. Maggitt is the one who's talked about more as a speed-rushing, terror-causing havoc-wreaker on the outside who have given us all visions of UT linebackers from days of old. All of a sudden, we're depending on him to be a difference-maker. If he is, he'll wind up the cream of this class.
I guess we'll all see in a week or so, but I know I'm excited about all these players.
Those who didn't make the list who I figured would have going into camp is Richardson, Cameron Clear, Byron Moore and Jordan Williams. That's not to say those guys don't have bright futures, but from everything I've heard, they just aren't as far ahead of the curve as others on this list.