The fax machine is quiet again, returned to a corner of the football office where it will sit, forgotten and covered with a layer of dust, until next year's signing day frenzy. For most of the young men who faxed signed letters of intent to the University of Tennessee, the same fate awaits. They sat at podiums in their high school gym, surrounded by friends and family, donned hats and t-shirts adorned with Power Ts, and fielded phone calls of congratulation from coaches and fellow recruits. The adulation is over now, and while the final rituals of high school await-- prom, final exams, yearbooks, graduation caps and gowns, I'll-miss-you-let's-stay-in-touch1-- the high school glory and accolades-- All-Region, All-State, All-American-- are already receding into the rear view mirror.
When these newly-minted Volunteers (or Gators, or 'Dawgs) step into the weight room or run out onto the practice field, they will be faced with the stark realization that they are still physically maturing 17-year old kids, and the players they will be facing in practice and under the lights are men. Men for whom shaving is a requirement instead of a passing fancy, who were also once All-Region, All-State, and All-American, and who have scars and repaired joints from previous engagements in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Athens. Men who will become teammates, mentors and friends, but who now, sizing up the cocky newness of youth, resent the implication that they've been measured and found lacking; who feel the sting of the coaching barb "come in and start immediately" and plan to hold onto that playing time with all the strength and desperation of a drowning sailor on the last piece of flotsam in a storm-wracked ocean.
So when Coach Jones says, "I want to guard against all of the expectations that are going to come with this recruiting class[;] these are 17- and 18-year-old individuals [and] [e]verything is about their personal growth and development," he isn't just downplaying expectations for the fans, but also for the players themselves, most of whom have never played with and against equally sized and skilled competitors.
Of course, every once in a long while, a player emerges as if preternaturally formed from the head of Zeus, and earns not begrudging praise but outright admiration. In 2001, a 22-year old former minor league baseball player named Kelley Washington stepped onto a practice field in Knoxville loaded with future pros2 and fifth-year players three years removed from a national championship, and immediately began turning heads. This was in the early days of the sports internet, and so without Vine and Twitter, the rumors about a brash, impossibly athletic wide receiver who had nicknamed himself "The Future" were passed on by message boards and phone conversations like a gigantic game of Telephone, garbling the transmission and raising expectations to a fever pitch. Once the games started, all Washington did was catch 70 passes for 1080 yards with 7 touchdowns and land on the freshman All-American team, while making enough jaw-dropping plays to vindicate even the most outlandish rumors.
But it's not fair to hold any one of the newly-signed recruits to the outsized expectations of the Vol Nation. For every four- and five-star player who becomes a star,3 there are many, many more who need time to grow into stardom (Donte Stallworth), or who work to become valuable role players (Jayson Swain), or who provide quality depth (Jason Croom), or who fail, for inexplicable reasons, to become anything at all (Kenny O'Neal).
So let's look at which players have the chance to contribute early, and not which players will be making multiple trips to the Pro Bowl.
1. Jalen Hurd
Hype threat level: Midnight.
Contribution potential: High. Tennessee's offensive line will be a completely rebuilt unit this year, and by rebuilt, think Frankenstein (composed of mismatched pieces stolen from corpses) and not Allstate commercial (dealership mechanic and factory parts). With that in mind, it's hard to expect much from the wide-receiver position, despite the obvious talent of early enrollees Josh Malone and Von Pearson. It's hard to complete downfield passes without good pass-blocking; and, in general, it's easier to teach inexperienced offensive lines to aggressively run block than it is to develop the coordination and timing for successful pass blocking. So, the offensive scheme for this year will likely feature heavy doses of spread-formation run plays, wide receiver screens, and quick passes to tight ends and running backs.
A natural athlete with soft hands, Jalen Hurd has the ability to contribute immediately as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Hurd has the size and strength to be an effective blocker as a third down back, and his slashing running style and top-end speed make him a very dangerous runner against long yardage zone coverages. A north-south, one-cut runner, Hurd excels at finding a vertical crease and then using his tremendous speed to outrun pursuit. Hurd routinely broke tackles at the high school level, but like most high school running backs, he will need time in the weight room to perform the same feats against SEC competition.
Although Marlin Lane will begin, and likely end, the season atop the depth chart, Hurd has the ability and the opportunity to contribute early. He is already on campus, having enrolled is January, and is training in the strength and conditioning program, studying the playbook, and taking practice reps while fellow running back signees Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk are picking out corsage colors for the prom. Hurd should immediately supplant the underwhelming trio of Alden Hill, DeAnthonie Summerhill, and Justus Pickett as Lane's primary backup. The only wild card for him is the speed of his recovery from the shoulder surgery3 which prematurely ended his senior season.
2. D'Andre Payne
Hype threat level: Moderate.
Contribution potential: High. Tennessee's defensive backfield returns all four starters, headlined by redshirt junior safety Brian Randolph and sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton, but last year's starters at the nickel (fifth) and dime (sixth) defensive back positions were a disaster all year, and multiple players will vie to fill those roles.4 A small but speedy prospect with great ball awareness and athleticism, D'Andre Payne is the complete opposite of the physically imposing but slow secondary players recruited by the former coaching staff. Payne displayed good versatility in high school, playing cornerback, running back, and slot receiver, and has the ability to contribute immediately at a number of positions in the defensive backfield. Extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, he absolutely pops on tape with good change-of-direction and explosion in the open field. In coverage, Payne shows good quickness, footwork, and, balance, mirroring his receiver and using his hands and recovery speed to counteract his lack of size. Once the ball is in the air, he uses excellent ball awareness, concentration, and elevation to snatch the ball at its highest point. Another early enrollee, Payne will compete for immediate playing time with game-but-underwhelming senior cornerbacks Justin Coleman, JaRon Toney, and Riyahd Jones; seldom-used sophomores Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford; and fellow early enrollee Emmanuel Moseley.
3. Joe Henderson
Hype threat level: Low.
Contribution potential: Medium. Tennessee's defensive line will also be a completely rebuilt unit, with all of the angst that entails, but with the maturation of sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen and defensive tackles Danny O'Brien and Jason Carr, and the addition of a talented group of incoming recruits, this unit has the potential, at least, to be legitimately scary for opposing teams.5 Many of the incoming players, including defensive end Derek Barnett and defensive tackles Michael Sawyers, Charles Mosley, and Owen Williams, have the size and strength to compete for immediate playing time on the interior of the defensive line, although the coaching staff would no doubt prefer to redshirt several players if possible. However, despite the obvious talent in that group, none has the singular skill that could be Joe Henderson's path to immediate playing time: the ability to get after the quarterback.
Henderson is a rangy prospect who will need to add strength and weight to be an every down defensive end in the SEC. What he lacks in bulk and power, however, he makes up with tremendous acceleration off the line of scrimmage. Henderson's first-step burst is so explosive that he was invited to the Ohio Nike Football Training Camp, where he beat out 5-star and consensus number one defensive end Da'Shawn Hand to be crowned Defensive Line MVP. The NFTC staff wrote on their evaluation that, "Henderson had the fastest get-off of any DL we’ve seen this year [and] was past the OL before they could even get into their set." He was then invited to The Opening, an invitation-only All-Star competition at Nike's headquarters in Oregon where he impressed the staff enough to be named to the defensive line Final 5, along with 5-star defensive end Chad Thomas (Miami), 5-star and consensus number one defensive tackle Andrew Brown (Virginia), 5-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Alabama), and 4-star defensive tackle Ainuu Taua (UCLA).6 The Opening staff noted that after being stopped by 5-star and consensus number one offensive tackle Cameron Robinson (Alabama), Henderson adapted and "began to show a nice inside rush" to complement his speed move.
Tennessee finished with 25 (2007), 23 (2008), 20 (2009), 26 (2010), 15 (2011), 17 (2012), and 18 (2013) sacks in the last seven years, with no defensive lineman finishing with more than Corey Miller's 6.5 last year. Henderson's pass-rushing ability should find a place on the field, regardless of how limited his other skills may be.
4. Gavin Bryant
Hype threat level: Low.
Contribution potential: Medium. Tennessee is mostly set at linebacker, with All-Everything middle linebacker A.J. Johnson having spurned the draft and former freshman All-SEC outside linebacker Curt Maggitt returning from injury, leaving only a single outside linebacker position up for grabs.7 The lone available spot will be the site of a hotly contested training camp battle between one of the most highly rated recruits from last year's class, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and class of 2014 recruits Chris Weatherd (JUCO) and Dillon Bates. Although initially slated to back up A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker, Gavin Bryant has the ability to immediately contribute as a situational or special teams player. Bryant has a large, powerful frame and good speed for his size. He is an instinctive player who flashes dominant run-stopping ability, shows quickness and balance to cut through traffic, and is rarely, if ever outflanked. Once he arrives at the ball carrier, Bryant is a sound tackler and punishing hitter who does not allow yardage after contact. While he may need time to learn the playbook, Bryant is the type of player who, like Reeves-Maybin last year, has the potential to be a difference-maker and is simply too talented to keep off the field.
5. Jakob Johnson
Hype Threat Level: High.
Contribution potential: Coach Jones on Johnson, "Jakob is the alpha male of this class." Enough said.
3. Like Cordarrelle Patterson or Jamal Lewis.↩
3. Hurd sustained a torn labrum in the first game of his senior season and opted to have immediate surgery, ending his season in order to speed recovery time.↩
6. For those keeping track, that's 247 composite overall #5 (and #1 DE) Hand, #11 (and #1 DT) Brown, #26 Thomas, #199 Taua, and... #378 Henderson. That's some serious competition.↩