It's the morning after, and all of us are excited about our four-stars who possibly probably definitely should have been five-stars and our three-star diamonds in the rough just waiting to be coach-em-upped. It's what we do. For Tennessee, much of the conversation on the Class of 2016 also involves what they don't have to do: make an impact right away.
Any rebuild begins on signing day; Tennessee's began with Butch Jones three years ago and has continued every February since. Those rebuilds end in the NFL Draft, where the Vols should be one April away from business as usual. In between is what we all hope will be the payoff season. But that hope doesn't have to be built on the backs of any true freshmen.
That has not been the case for the more desperate hopes of the rest of this decade, when the Vols have seen 16 true freshmen start a majority of games over the last six years:
- 2015: Darrin Kirkland Jr.
- 2014: Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd, Jashon Robertson, Ethan Wolf
- 2013: Marquez North, Josh Smith, Cam Sutton
- 2012: LaDarrell McNeil
- 2011: A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, Brian Randolph
- 2010: Tyler Bray, Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James, James Stone
The numbers predictably go down in the third year under Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, but even there newcomers lurked beyond true freshmen in the starting lineup. The could-have-been 2012 Vols started three junior college transfers, two on the defensive line as part of a failed attempt to adapt in Sal Sunseri's defense. Last fall Jauan Jennings was Tennessee's leading wide receiver in the month of September, and obviously Alvin Kamara was a big part of what the Vols wanted to do offensively. None of this even touches on the number of true freshmen in the two deep in these years, just one play away from the fire.
This time around? Maybe Nigel Warrior is the real deal right away and wrestles away a starting safety spot. If you expand to the junior college transfers maybe Jonathan Kongbo becomes the consistent answer opposite Derek Barnett. But if they or anyone else does, it will be because they were truly (and surprisingly) the best available option.
This means we will, for many of even the highest rated prospects in the Class of 2016, get to reintroduce ourselves to a couple of concepts: redshirting and special teams.
Last year the Vols redshirted seven scholarship players (Venzell Boulware, Andrew Butcher, Sheriron Jones, Vincent Perry, Drew Richmond, Darrell Taylor, Eli Wolf). The year before it was just five by my count (Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, Neiko Creamer, Charles Mosley, Ray Raulerson). The option will be there for a much higher number this year if the Vols want it.
This is why the special teams conversation is really fascinating. A year after running the best unit in America, the Vols helped Mark Elder get the head coaching job at Eastern Kentucky and will reshuffle duties for 2016. Will the coverage and return units include the team's best players, or will names like Nigel Warrior, Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway and more get their feet wet right away? These are choices Tennessee just hasn't had since Fulmer; freshmen have been playing special teams because freshmen have been among the team's best players.
The best programs in the country both get the players who are most ready to contribute, but also find ways to work them in without having to rush because of the other talent they've brought in before. True freshmen who can meaningfully contribute are an added benefit instead of a nervous first line of defense. The wins and losses will tell the truth as they always do this fall. But on paper, this is what a healthy program looks like. And it's really nice to see one again.