VOL. 38 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 29, 2014
Freshman orientation: Vols among NCAA’s youngest headed into Sunday opener
KNOXVILLE – For better or worse, University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones won’t need to wait long to see the talent level of his highly touted freshman class.
Jones will find out Sunday night at 7 when the Vols play host to Utah State at Neyland Stadium. The Aggies will be an underdog – probably by a touchdown or so – and a trendy pick for some as an upset special.
UT, coming off three consecutive 5-7 seasons, enters the second year of Jones’ coaching era with 15 freshmen on the two-deep depth chart. Three of the freshmen are slotted as starters.
“It’s exciting because I think it’s the future of Tennessee football, and this football team is going to be intact for many years to come,” Jones says. “Along with that, you suffer growing pains, but also they’re very talented.”
Jones better hope his youthful bunch doesn’t ache too much from growing pains against Utah State, which has been to three consecutive bowl games and features senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy.
If the Aggies pull off the upset Sunday night, it would deflate the air of optimism Jones has created for UT fans starving for positives in the once-proud program.
If the Vols win, fans can look forward to another upbeat week heading into the Sept. 6 home game against Arkansas State, which might be just as capable of an upset as the Aggies.
Jones isn’t looking past Utah State.
“They’ve done a tremendous job,” the coach says. “All you have to do is put the film on. You see a very well-coached football team. You see a confident football team, and you see a capable football team.
“They have some great players, and they have some players who will play in the National Football League for a very, very long period of time.”
The Vols may have players destined for the NFL – in a year or two.
UT has 28 freshmen and sophomores on the depth chart entering the Utah State game. Only Oklahoma State (32) and Colorado (29) have more going into the season.
Meanwhile, the Vols have just six seniors listed on the two-deep – tying Temple for fewest in the nation.
Those seniors are quarterback Justin Worley, cornerback Justin Coleman, left tackle Jacob Gilliam, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, tailback Marlin Lane, and defensive tackle Jordan Williams.
Worley, who won the starting job in preseason over Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs, isn’t deterred by the Vols’ youth.
“I think we can surprise some people this year,” Worley says. “I think we’re really talented, even though we are young, an insane number of young guys on this team, and being a senior, you’d hope there’d be more seniors that we could lean on here and there, but I’m excited. I think the sky’s the limit for this football team.”
Much of it hinges on the freshmen.
UT’s three freshman starters are tight end Ethan Wolf of Minster, Ohio, right guard Jashon Robertson of Nashville, and defensive end Derek Barnett, also of Nashville.
Wolf will be the first true freshman to start at tight end in UT history.
Robertson, who played offensive and defensive line at Montgomery Bell Academy, will be the fourth true freshman at UT to start the season opener, joining Bill Mayo (1981), Michael Munoz (2000) and Ja’Wuan James (2010). James was a first-round pick by the Dolphins in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Jones says the three freshmen didn’t just stumble into starting jobs.
“It’s a high level of consistency, and we always talk about consistency in performance, and they’ve been mature beyond their years,” Jones says. “They’ve handled the volume in terms of the mental part of it from the playbook, the work capacity, our style of play, being able to finish plays, and they’ve continually improved each and every practice.
“They’ve earned that right (to start), and I’m excited to see what they can do on Sunday.”
They won’t be the only freshmen on the field against Utah State.
Jalen Hurd, a five-star tailback out of Hendersonville High School, is the backup behind Lane. Look for Hurd to get some carries in relief of Lane against the Aggies.
Josh Malone, a 6-3, 204-pound wide receiver from Gallatin’s Station Camp High School, had a big preseason but was passed on the depth chart by junior Alton “Pig” Howard.
Two of the Vols’ “legacy” freshmen also are slotted as backups on the depth chart: weak-side linebacker Dillon Bates of Ponte Vedra, Florida, and strong safety Todd Kelly Jr., former standout at Webb School of Knoxville.
Bates is the son of former UT safety Bill Bates (1979-82), and Kelly is the son of former Vols defensive end Todd Kelly (1989-92).
Coleman Thomas of Max Meadows, Va., is the backup right tackle behind Kyler Kerbyson, a fourth-year junior and former player at Knoxville Catholic High School.
Jones knows UT’s young players are a wild card going into the 2014 opener.
“That’s one of the things you go into as an unknown, is how are these individuals going to really react when the scoreboard’s on and it’s for real and there are no do-overs,” Jones said. “There are no re-set buttons.”
Keeton vs. Vols’ defense: Keeton, a 6-2, 200-pound senior from Houston, is a dual-threat quarterback – just the type the Vols struggled against in 2013.
He threw for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions in 2012 while rushing for 619 yards and eight TDs.
Last year, Keeton suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game against Brigham Young after throwing for 1,388 yards and 18 TDs with two interceptions and rushing for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones said Keeton will be a big test for the Vols.
“I’d like to think we’re much more athletic on the defensive side of the ball,” Jones says. “We’ve improved our team speed, but to simulate Chuckie Keeton in practice is a challenge in and of itself, so we’ll find out in a hurry come Sunday night, how far we’ve progressed and where we need to make improvements as we move forward.”
Aggies’ defense vs. Vols’ QBs: Utah State took some big hits to attrition on its 2013 defense. It lost All-Mountain West Conference linebacker Jake Doughty and All-MWC cornerback Nate Lawson. Also gone are second-team nose guard AJ Pataiali’i, and honorable mention safety Maurice Alexander.
Worley is the starter, but Jones gained confidence in his two backups during the preseason competition.
“(Worley’s) really taken on a leadership role,” Jones says. “I’ve seen him being even more vocal, and the great thing about it is Nate Peterman and Josh Dobbs have not changed one bit either.
“They’re still pushing him, they’re still communicating, they’re still trying to improve on a daily basis. It’s been great to see that overall position group has not been phased one way or the other, who the starter is, they’re one snap away.”
Vols’ new O-line vs. Aggies’ front seven: UT’s revamped offensive line will get an early test. The Vols’ front line consists entirely of first-year starters: tackles Jacob Gilliam and Kerbyson, guards Robertson and Marcus Jackson, and center Mack Crowder.
Utah State’s defense was stout in 2013 and four All-MWC players are returning, including senior defensive end B.J. Larsen and senior linebacker Zach Vigil. Junior defensive end Jordan Nielson earned second-team All-MCC honors in 2012. The Aggies allowed 106.7 rushing yards per game last season, the fewest for the program since 1968. They ranked first in the MWC and seventh nationally in points allowed (17.1) per game.
“They’re very, very talented up front (defensively), very physical, run to the football, and linebacker oriented in terms of their defensive structure,” Jones says. “It’s going to be a great challenge.”
PK Job Still Open: UT might not announce its starting place-kicker/kicker until game time. Sophomore George Bullock, who played Knoxville West High School, and freshman Aaron Medley of Marshall County High School spent the preseason vying for starting job.
“I think both kickers have the talent to kick at a very high level,” Jones says. “They’re both very, very capable of that, and also it’s the kickoff. They have the ability. It’s just the overall level of consistency (for both kickers).”
Maggitt is Fine: Jones said junior linebacker Curt Maggitt is ready for action after sitting out much of preseason camp. Maggitt, who was redshirted in 2013 due to a variety of injuries, earned All-SEC freshman honors in 2011 and started nine games in 2012.
“He’s back full go, and it’s been great to see,” Jones says. “Again, he adds a whole other element to our defense, and we’re going to need that. Even though he hasn’t played in a year, the leadership intangibles he brings, the calmness, the energy level he brings, and to have that on the field is going to be extremely beneficial to us.”
Pig’s Comeback: Alton “Pig” Howard was a huge question heading into preseason camp after missing spring practices for personal reasons. He returned to the team only after the Vols’ leadership committee voted for his return, and Howard made the most of his chance.
“(Howard) was in the best shape that he’s ever been in his career here, and it showed, and again, consistency, each and every day, he brought it every day, and didn’t say two words,” Jones says.
“Just kept working and working and working, so he earned that role by his body of work, starting practice one in training camp, and he’s been one of our playmakers. The other thing is his overall knowledge of the offense.”
Sutton Wins Return Job: Sophomore Cameron Sutton, a starter at cornerback, won the starting punt returner’s job, edging senior Devrin Young, former Knoxville Bearden player.
“Great players have it, consistency,” Jones says of Sutton. “He just had a high level of consistency each and every day.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.