Fall practice has begun.
For the past week, Tennessee football fans -- and fans around the country -- have been able to feed their football fix with information from practice reports, features and morsels of information about the new coaching staff, new players, new schemes and a new brand of football.
One thing that I always get excited about is the buzz you hear when it comes to incoming freshmen. I remember my dad talking about Carl Pickens and Heath Shuler when I was young, getting excited about the potential of those players, which was obvious the moment they stepped on the practice field. That feeling continued throughout the Phillip Fulmer years and into the days when I was covering the team. I'll never forget the palpable excitement around Casey Clausen until he injured himself when he first got to UT and his debut was delayed.
When I left UT and was able to pull for the Vols rabidly again, the quarterback duo of Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer excited the Big Orange masses with a freshman battle to see who'd start the first game in 2003. Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers continued the thrills recently.
And just last year, though he wasn't a freshman, everybody was talking about junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson and just how much he was on another level than anybody else on the field. That athleticism was showcased on the Georgia Dome turf and throughout last season, even in the midst of one of the most depressing football seasons on the Hill in years.
The calendar flipped, however, and the coaching staff turned over with it. Now this season, we all have hope that Butch Jones and his coaching staff can turn around an abysmal stretch of Tennessee football. We're all excited about NEXT YEAR'S recruiting class and the overall future of the program. But, to be honest, there wasn't a lot of buzz surrounding Jones' first half-class at UT, one that scraped its way into the nation's top 25 but not much higher.
After a week of practice, however, there are some names that have surfaced and have Vols fans even more excited than usual. Are these guys shining for the simple reason that they're getting necessary reps because of UT's lack of depth or talent? Or are they legitimately good-looking SEC players who can help the Vols build that foundation to turn around the program? We'll see in due time, but for now, we've got that fall hope that we all look forward to every year.
Here is a list of players generating considerable buzz in this year's camp, guys that we all hope will become the next Tennessee legends:
- MarQuez North. There's little doubt that the 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver is an SEC talent. Butch Jones has already said he'll be one of this team's "playmakers" and it's tough to pump the breaks on a player at a need position who has already shined enough to get called out by coaches. He's perhaps the most important newcomer on the team, and it sounds like he'll have the ability to help right away. Hopefully, he's the kind of player who can help UT make up for some of the receiver deficiencies that were prevalent in the spring.
- Corey Vereen. He has gained some weight since this spring, but the midterm enrollee certainly looks the part and appears to have capitalized on his breakout spring game performance. That is why every Tennessee fan following practice is holding his breath at the news that the talented young defensive end will have an MRI on his knee today and could be out a while. If that's the case, it would delay and derail a blazing start for a kid garnering as many early accolades as any UT freshman defensive lineman in a long time. At 6-2, 248, he has the size and speed to be disruptive at defensive end, and UT needs somebody who can rush the passer. His four spring game sacks shows maybe he can. Coaches have noted he'll get every opportunity to crack the rotation sooner rather than later.
- Cameron Sutton/Malik Foreman. I'm grouping these guys together because they play the same position (cornerback) and we've heard glowing things about both. Sutton is apparently a bit ahead of Foreman physically, but Foreman is just a fast, athletic player who can break into the rotation in a thin and unproven secondary. Coaches like what they have in the young corners. That's good, because they'll have to play.
- Woody Quinn. Again, it's hard to put him on this list and in this post [much like Cordarrelle Patterson] because he's a junior college player. But Quinn has played so little football in his career, which began as a volleyball player at Pepperdine, that it's encouraging to read about his progress. He's really big, and he's really athletic, and he gets yelled at a lot in practice, which means that Jones probably expects him to contribute. The coaches like their depth enough at tight end to move Justin King back to defense. That should tell you all you need to know about Quinn's potential.
- Ryan Jenkins/Josh Smith. They've been talked about less than North because, quite frankly, North is elite. But these two receivers are smooth in the slot, and both are turning heads. Jenkins came with the four-star clout and nice offer list. Smith was just a local kid who was pretty unheralded. But they've both got nice futures and have drawn coaches' praise.
These are the guys generating the most buzz right now. That's not to take anything away from guys who really should be good players -- guys like the quarterback duo of Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, four-star defensive tackle Jason Carr, four-star wide receiver Paul Harris and four-star safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin -- but they just haven't stole the show in practice so far like North and Vereen, the cream of the crop so far in drills.
I extended my list somewhat, but the two names being mentioned as immediate contributors [along with Quinn] are North -- the Charlotte product -- and Vereen -- the Florida converted linebacker. Isn't preseason buzz fun? They haven't done anything yet and we're already anointing them. It's called "hope" and we have it again.
Just wait until the '14 class gets here next year.
Who are some of the guys you remember who were being buzzed about this time of year? Who lived up to the hype? Who didn't?