The pitch from Lane Kiffin to last year's recruiting class was, among other things, immediate playing time. Of course, every college coach puts that idea in the heads of the seventeen and eighteen year olds they're courting, but with Kiffin it was an even bigger point of emphasis, because we needed more talent and because all of the starting jobs were declared open (except Eric Berry). And the pitch worked on several late additions to what became a very respectable class.
But when fall got here, how much did these guys actually play?
Here's the breakdown of freshman playing time under Kiffin last year:
- Consistent Starters: Aaron Douglas, Montori Hughes, Janzen Jackson
- Significant Contributors: Bryce Brown, Marsalis Teague, Greg King, Herman Lathers
- Played Sparingly: David Oku, Nu'Keese Richardson, Zach Rogers, Marlon Walls, Willie Bohannon, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Darren Myles, Prentiss Waggner, Mike Edwards
- Redshirted: Nyshier Oliver, Eric Gordon, Toney Williams, Jerod Askew, Kevin Revis, JerQuari Schofield, Daniel Hood, Arthur Jeffery
Taking out the guys who never made it to school, that's a group of 24 players who had a chance to contribute for the first time last year. Eight were redshirted, and another nine saw only spot duty. Special teams was Kiffin's method for getting guys like Oku and Nu'Keese on the field.
Two of the freshmen who became consistent starters were actually 2008 signees with Fulmer...meaning Janzen Jackson was the only one out of Kiffin's Class of 2009 who earned a starting job. LBs Greg King and Herman Lathers (another Fulmer signee) later picked up starting assignments due to injuries at the position, while Teague and Brown became reliable backups...but that's it. So out of the guys Kiffin signed, only Janzen Jackson made an instant impact, Greg King started due to injury to other LBs, and Bryce Brown and Marsalis Teague were consistent backups.
So it sounds like Kiffin didn't do that good of a job getting young guys significant playing time. However, let's compare 2009 to 2008:
...where we find more proof that the talent level ain't what it used to be around these parts.
In 2009, Herman Lathers led all freshmen with 52 tackles. Janzen Jackson had 37 in 10 games, and it goes on from there; five freshmen had more than 10 tackles last year.
Do you know who the leading freshman tackler was in 2008?
It was no better on the other side of the ball, where Poole ran for 86 yards (one more than he got in '09), B.J. Coleman took a few infamous snaps at Vanderbilt...and that's about it. Tennessee's 2008 class was ranked 35th by Rivals...and as it turns out, that was probably a little high.
Gerald Williams was the best player in that class, but he didn't see the field until 2009. E.J. Abrams-Ward was second, and Aaron Douglas was third. You see the problem: the Vols are going to end up getting very little from an entire recruiting class, with only Montori Hughes and Tauren Poole (and maybe Herman Lathers) projected to start as that class enters its third year on campus. This is yet another addition to the long list of things that weren't Derek Dooley's fault, but he'll have to deal with.
It should be noted that Fulmer wasn't always opposed to playing freshmen: in 2007, even if you take out the Eric Berry anomaly, there were still four guys who scored meaningful touchdowns on offense (Lennon Creer, Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker), Brent Vinson found a consistent role in the secondary, and this year's senior LB trio of Nick Reveiz, Savion Frazier, and LaMarcus Thompson all had steady backup roles with the defense. Add in Dennis Rogan's strong kick return contributions, and the '07 team used freshmen a fair amount.
All of this to say that having just one guy who turns into Eric Berry or Janzen Jackson is a blessing. Last August, we looked at the top ten true freshman performances at UT in the last twenty years, and I would give Janzen's season last year honorable mention in that group. Kiffin found ways to get guys noticed, whether that was using true freshmen as kick returners, getting them lots of "meaningful" snaps against the Western Kentucky types, or playing them over a more experienced and arguably better player (which we hope was the case with Bryce Brown over Tauren Poole). Kiffin did give players a chance to see the field sooner, though without injuries to others it wouldn't have panned out for anyone but Janzen Jackson.
So it raises the question for Derek Dooley: how many freshmen are going to play meaningful roles for the Vols in 2010?
Questions of both talent and depth will create a unique situation for freshmen this fall: you can already pencil in two and maybe three (counting redshirt Schofield) freshmen starters on the offensive line. On the other hand, the Vols' most celebrated recruits are wide receivers, the position where Tennessee has the most talent and experience returning...so just because Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, Matt Milton, or Ted Meline may not get a bunch of balls thrown their way this fall, that doesn't mean they're busts. And of course, there's Tyler Bray, who could become the first true freshman starting QB for the Vols since Erik Ainge six years ago.
And there are a ton of other guys who will have a chance to contritube, from Michael Palardy to Jacques Smith and everyone in between. We've seen Fulmer play freshmen when they were truly special. We've seen the program suffer because of poor recruiting classes and the additional exodus that comes from two coaching changes in two years. We've seen Kiffin find creative ways to get guys on the field, even if only a very few end up making a real impact right away. And now we'll see Dooley, who will almost be forced to play several freshmen right away and hope it works out for the best. It's unfair for us to expect everyone to turn into Jamal Lewis, Eric Berry, or even what we saw last year from Janzen Jackson.
But if there's an upside to all of this, it's that the Vols are going to end up with a ton of guys who've seen a ton of action in their first two years, who can become the foundation on which this program is rebuilt going forward. Tennessee may not win a ton of games relying on inexperienced freshmen with no depth in key spots. But if those inexperienced freshmen mature more quickly because of their playing time, and the Vols continue to recruit well to solve problems of talent and depth going forward, we could get back to the point where we don't have to play so many young guys right away...and hopefully all these freshmen and sophomores become very capable juniors and seniors, just in time for Derek Dooley to reap the harvest.