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Instant Impact: The Top 10 Freshman Performances at UT in the Last 20 Years

Under Phillip Fulmer, we became used to only a handful of freshmen seeing action right away.  Lane Kiffin came in with promises of playing time for freshmen, and thus far in camp has lived up to his word.  Between Kiffin's new philosophy and a rash of injuries at unfortunate spots, the list of freshmen who could see immediate action on the two deep is at least a dozen deep.

It's tempting to believe that (choose from Bryce Brown, David Oku, Marsalis Teague, Nu'Keese Richardson, Zach Rogers, Montori Hughes, Jerod Askew, Greg King, Mike Edwards, Eric Gordon, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, I could keep going) is going to have an incredible breakout season and be great as soon as they put the jersey on, but with freshmen you just never know until you see it. 

So until we do, here are ten impact performances turned in by freshmen at the University of Tennessee in the last 20 years.  This list is freshmen from high school only - no juco transfers, no ex-professional baseball players.  These guys don't come along every day or every season...but there is a precedent for kids coming on campus and having an immediate impact.

10. K Jeff Hall 1995

The most famous name in a lineage of freshman UT kickers, Hall earned Freshman All-SEC honors in '95, and booted home the game winner against Georgia in his second career appearance.  He also hit key field goals in wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and knocked home two fourth quarter field goals in the rain as the Vols beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl.  His performance in the clutch gives him the edge over Daniel Lincoln, who was also named Freshman All-SEC in 2007.

9. Freshmen Offensive Linemen:  Jeff Smith (92), Bubba Miller (92), Cosey Coleman (97), Michael Munoz (00), Arron Sears (03), Josh McNeil (06)

Every once in a while, the Vols have brought in an offensive lineman who was capable of contributing immediately, and in the case of all six of these gentlemen, being thrust into a starting role in their first season.  All six would earn Freshman All-SEC honors.

8. WR/DB Carl Pickens 1989

This redshirt freshman was so talented in 1989, he played both ways and returned kicks.  As a free safety, Pickens grabbed five interceptions and was named the Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl win against Arkansas.  His only problem on offense was the talent around him, giving him fewer receptions because guys like Alvin Harper were taking them instead.  Pickens left defense behind in 1990 and turned in two more incredible seasons at UT, and he is arguably the most talented Vol wide receiver ever. 

7. RBs James Stewart & Aaron Hayden 1991

Where we'd be today if we didn't have Montario Hardesty.  With no returning experience in the backfield in 1991, the Vols gave the keys to a pair of freshmen from the opening game, and Stewart and Hayden would respond with four solid years in the orange and white.  In their debut at Louisville (in the first-ever ESPN Thursday Night game), both rushed for over 100 yards in a 28-11 Vol win.  Stewart would later run for 215 against Ole Miss and for over 900 yards by himself on the season. 


6. QB Peyton Manning 1994

Forced into action when senior QB Jerry Colquitt blew out his knee on the seventh play of the season, Manning waited behind Todd Helton for three games and then battled with fellow freshman Brandon Stewart the rest of the season.  The Vols were a 1-3 team when Manning got his first start; Tennessee won seven of their last eight under his leadership.  His freshman numbers weren't as good and his freshman wins not as big as two other quarterbacks on this list, in part due to his split reps, but in 1994 he was good enough to earn SEC Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.  He did alright after that.


5. QB Casey Clausen 2000

A preseason shoulder injury kept Clausen on the sidelines for most of the Vols' first five games.  Like Manning, when Clausen took over the Vols had already lost three games.  In his first start, the Vols beat Alabama 20-10, then upset South Carolina in Columbia the following week.  Clausen's numbers exploded in wins over Arkansas and Kentucky, in which the Vols scored a combined 122 points.  In all, he led the Vols to six straight wins to close the regular season, and still holds the passing yardage record for a freshman QB at Tennessee with 1,473 yards.

4. QB Erik Ainge 2004

Where Manning and Clausen waited their turn to play, Ainge was thrown to the wolves immediately, and then missed the end of the season due to injury.  Against the Gators in his second career appearance, Ainge turned in a performance for the ages in a 30-28 Tennessee win.  A few weeks later, he led the 12-point underdog Vols into Athens and escaped with a 19-14 win that essentially clinched the SEC East.  He was 21 yards away from breaking Casey Clausen's freshman yardage record when a shoulder injury ended his season against Notre Dame; the Vols were 7-1 with him taking the majority of the snaps, and Ainge gets his share of credit for the Vols' Eastern Division title.  His 17 TD passes are still a UT freshman record.   

3. SS Eric Berry 2007

He started in the nickel package in his first game.  He became the starter at strong safety in his second game.  He made a national name for himself in his third game, picking off Tim Tebow and racing back 96 yards for a touchdown.  It would be one of five interceptions on the year for Eric Berry, along with a UT-record 222 return yards on turnovers.  He also came up with a key fumble recovery against LSU in the SEC Championship Game, and tried to kill Tyler Donovan in the Outback Bowl.  Berry was the SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year, led conference freshmen in tackles, and was a first team Freshman All-American.  That was the warmup.

2. RB Chuck Webb 1989

The holy of holies, who's only at #2 on this list because he didn't get as many carries as the feature back as the guy at #1 did.  That's because for the first half of the 1989 season, Webb teamed with Reggie Cobb (who also had a terrific freshman year in 1987) to form the vaunted CobbWebb attack.  Coming off a 5-6 1988 season, the duo helped the Vols to a 5-0 start that included huge upsets over UCLA and Auburn.  When Cobb was kicked off the team the week of the Alabama game for a substance abuse violation, the Vols lost to the Tide 47-30...but wouldn't lose again.  As the feature back for the final six games of the season, the freshman Webb turned in the school's two greatest individual performances:  294 yards against Ole Miss, and 250 yards in the Cotton Bowl against Arkansas, and the Vols shared the SEC title.  With only six games as the starter under his belt, Webb still ran for 1,236 yards.  He is, to me, the most talented individual player I've ever seen at Tennessee.  In the second game of his sophomore year, Webb blew out his knee, and was never seen in Neyland Stadium again.

1. RB Jamal Lewis 1997

The Vols waited three games to get Jamal the ball, including the 33-20 loss to Florida in Peyton Manning's senior year.  Didn't know the blocking scheme, they said.  When Lewis was named the starter in game four against Ole Miss, he responded immediately:  155 yards and a touchdown.  The following week, he responded authoritatively:  232 yards against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs, a performance that still ranks in the Top 10 all time at UT.  He would top 200 again against South Carolina later that season, would finish with 1,364 yards (3rd best season ever at UT) and 7 TDs, and helped run out the clock as the Vols won the SEC Championship.  Both Chuck Webb and Jamal Lewis averaged 5.9 yards per carry in their freshman seasons.