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10 Questions for 2014 #2 - The Freshmen

Tennessee's most celebrated recruiting class since Phillip Fulmer's prime prepares for baptism by fire.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It is usually this time of year when we're getting excited about incoming freshmen; a message board note here, an "I'll tell you who looks the part..." there.  When you're good, they're the icing on the cake, the secret extra weapons who don't have to do much, make an impact on special teams, and can simply show flashes of future promise.  When you're not so good, you need a little more than flashes; you look for who can contribute right away, and hope a four-or-five-star recruit translates into a four-or-five-star player now, not later.

When you've had as much turnover as Tennessee, then you signed a top five recruiting class?  I'm not sure we've ever seen anything like this.

It is our expectation that at least ten true freshmen will appear in Tennessee's two deep:

  • RB Jalen Hurd - The five-star should do no worse than second string behind senior Marlin Lane at tailback.  Butch Jones had a history of giving one tailback the vast majority of the carries at Cincinnati, but last year Lane had 101 carries to Rajion Neal's 215.  How that ratio plays out between Lane and Hurd remains to be seen, but they are built quite differently and could combine to form an incredible duo.  At worst, Hurd contributes as the number two.  At best, he proves his rating right away.
  • WR Josh Malone - UT's second five-star wowed in the spring game.  One year after Marquez North led the Vols in receiving yards as a true freshmen, he could team with Malone immediately as the starting outside wide receivers.  With Pig Howard and incoming JUCO Von Pearson considered primarily as slot receivers, Malone's competition will come primarily from guys like Jason Croom and Josh Smith.  There is clearly precedent for true freshmen receivers to come right in and make noise; the sooner he can do so, the sooner opposing defenses must respect someone other than North.  And if Malone plays to his potential immediately, Tennessee could have a dynamic passing game.
  • TE Daniel Helm & Ethan Wolf - I'm still not sure exactly how much the Vols will use the tight end this year - last year Brendan Downs caught a dozen passes and A.J. Branisel caught three - but with lasting injury concerns facing both returning players, it's hard to imagine Helm and/or Wolf not getting in the mix somehow this fall.  Tight end Travis Kelce led Cincinnati in receptions in 2012, so you know Butch and Bajakian are certainly willing to go that route.
  • RT Coleman Thomas - The surest bet of any true freshman to start.  Only a three-star, Thomas came this spring and won a starting job by the Orange & White Game.  That may have more to say about Tennessee's offensive line than his overall talent right now, but either way he's playing.
  • DE Derek Barnett, Joe Henderson, Dewayne Hendrix, Jakob Johnson - Here too, look at the depth chart, some of these kids are playing.  Jakob Johnson was at linebacker this spring, quickly dubbed the alpha male of the legacy class by Butch Jones.  He's now listed at defensive end, a move that speaks volumes about the upperclassmen competition.  Barnett, Henderson, and Hendrix are all four-stars recruited to play the position.  You have to believe at least one of them is going to get legitimate playing time early.
  • LB Dillon Bates - Curt Maggitt's move from outside linebacker to defensive end signals a growing comfort level with Bates at outside linebacker.  Maggitt (and A.J. Johnson) played right away as true freshmen, so this wouldn't be unheard of on The Hill.  Depending on who you ask, Bates is considered as high as the Vols' third best incoming prospect.  Even if Maggitt stayed at OLB his primary competition for playing time is Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who also made a name for himself as a freshman last year.  Even if he doesn't start, he will almost certainly play.
  • DB Todd Kelly, Jr. & Emmanuel Moseley - Moseley won a starting job in the Orange & White Game, so he's clearly off to a good start.  Kelly joins Bates as the highest rated defensive signee of the class, and should look to get playing time immediately at one of the safety spots.  Tennessee has a number of other young options in the defensive backfield, but these two stand out from a prestige and experience perspective.
  • K Aaron Medley - In the battle to replace Michael Palardy, the true freshman should get a chance to go against Derrick Brodus and George Bullock when he arrives this fall.
We began this series with a look at freshmen under the radar; there are a host of others who may not start or crack a written two deep, but will not redshirt either.  But at the very least, it seems safe to say this will be one of the youngest Vol teams on record.  Derek Dooley's first squad was starting four freshmen on offense by the end of the year with three others on the second team.  The 2007 Vols (who, by the way, won the SEC East) had three freshmen playing in the defensive backfield and three others on the second team at linebacker.  But I think it's safe to say no Vol squad will rely on freshmen on both sides of the ball as much as Team 118.

This means one of the most important questions for this team will be, "How quickly will the freshmen mature?"

It will happen faster for some than others.  And for those for whom it happens more slowly, it will be interesting to see how much mileage "He's just a freshman" is worth this year.  It's not fair, but with so much hype and so much raw need among those clad in orange to win, this will be both the most celebrated and most relied-upon freshman class we've seen.  Butch Jones' ability to sign such a class in the midst of so much turmoil and flat out losing over the last six years was already a unique thing.  But now we'll see this experiment play out in real time against live SEC fire.  These kids were exactly what we needed in February.  How soon can they be exactly what we need in September?  How quickly can we stop calling them kids?

Either way, we're incredibly excited to find out.  The clock ticks at 48 days and counting...