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10 Questions for 2016 #10: Will Any Freshmen Make an Immediate Impact?

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the continuing saga of “the questions are the answers”, consider some of the ones we’ve asked about the upcoming seasons over the last seven summers on this blog:

  • The Vols started three true freshmen on the offensive line in 2010 and two true freshmen and a walk-on in 2014.
  • Quarterback controversies were present in 2010, 2013, and 2014, with true freshmen in the mix eventually getting the job later in the season in 2010 and 2013.
  • In 2011 the Vols had to replace three of their four starters on the defensive line and did so with a junior college transfer, a former offensive lineman, and by moving a defensive end to defensive tackle.
  • In 2013 the Vols replaced Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson with two true freshmen and replaced both starting corners with two true freshmen.
  • New coordinators entered the fray in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015. (We’ll get to the one from 2016 too, but we’re much more a fan of the questions that come with him.)

Throughout Tennessee’s time in the wilderness we’ve had to ask preseason questions of not just, “Who’s going to start at x position,” but, “What about this entire position group?” In Derek Dooley’s tenure the answers were often quick-fix attempts via transfer or junior college. Butch Jones has most often answered with freshmen in both quantity and quality.

By my count the Vols have had 20 non-special-teams multi-game true freshmen starters since 2009, an average of almost three per year. Some have been answers to injuries on thin depth charts, others with fingers crossed from day one. Even last year on a team that just missed the promised land Tennessee started true freshmen at middle linebacker and on the right side of the offensive line, and got a ton of reps for freshmen at defensive tackle. We’ve had a couple of Janzen Jacksons and Jalen Hurds, but most often the Vols have been forced to throw true freshmen into the fire at positions where they were at a far greater physical disadvantage.

But this year, I’m not sure who’s even going to come close enough to feel the flames.

We’ll get to our junior college friends like Jonathan Kongbo. But among true freshmen, will any from February’s class find their way to meaningful snaps on offense or defense this fall?

Or perhaps more enjoyably said, from which freshmen might Team 120 get some bonus contribution?

Among true freshmen quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was Tennessee’s second highest-rated recruit; if he doesn’t redshirt something went horribly wrong. Remove him and Kongbo from the list, and the top of the Vols’ board is all skill position players who tend to have an easier time finding their way early on. Nigel Warrior, Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, and early enrollee Marquill Osborne, all four stars, are at the top of that list.

Osborne got the early jump, but faces tougher competition in front of him at corner. Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman are four-year starters and expected to hold things down at corner and nickel, and the other corner spot was an ongoing battle between Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley last year and both return. The Vols also brought in junior college transfer D.J. Henderson in January. There will be opportunities aplenty here next year, but if Tennessee is healthy Osborne would have to be really strong to be a significant contributor this fall.

The window is a little more open for Nigel Warrior at safety. Not only was he the Vols’ highest-rated signee overall, he also could be in line for an immediate second team role. Todd Kelly Jr. is established and Rashaan Gaulden’s move to safety comes with plenty of assumptions about his ability. There’s experience behind them in Evan Berry and Micah Abernathy, but Warrior will certainly get his chance to overtake them. Over at Bleacher Report our old friend Brad Shepard thinks Warrior will command playing time before the end of the season.

Are chances better for freshmen at wide receiver? Tyler Byrd is expected to start out there with Callaway, where the Vols have been looking for consistency since Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson left and Butch Jones arrived. Josh Malone, Josh Smith, Preston Williams, and Jauan Jennings are all back, but with Jason Croom at tight end and Vincent Perry’s future uncertain, opportunity could present itself early. Junior college transfer Jeff George was here in the spring and got an early jump, but at 6’6” he’s a different animal than Byrd or Callaway.

The Vols have had seven different receivers catch at least six passes the last two years, which would leave plenty of room for both Byrd and Callaway. For that matter, don’t forget about Brandon Johnson or Latrell Williams, who might be the best example of how this year is different for true freshmen. In most of the last seven off-seasons the conversation on Williams would have been, “He runs a 4.3 40, he can start right away! And return kicks and punts!” This year it’s, “He runs a 4.3 40, maybe we can use him as a gimmick!”

There could be other opportunities for guys like linebacker Daniel Bituli and offensive linemen Ryan Johnson and Marcus Tatum, especially if injuries are not kind. And some if not all of these skill position players may get their feet wet on special teams. But for the first time in a long time, there is zero obvious need in the starting lineup. If you’re seeing one of these guys in a meaningful role, chances are they’re something special.