KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is quickly discovering the frustration and fascination involved in having such a young team.
The Volunteers added a heralded 32-man recruiting class, and many of the newcomers will get substantial playing time this fall.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has said on more than one occasion that patience was going to be tested this year as the Vols attempt to compete in the Southeastern Conference while relying on underclassmen.
“This league is very unforgiving, especially if you play a lot of true freshmen,” Jones said. “If you look at a lot of good players that have played in the SEC and you look at their play from their freshman year to their junior year to their senior year, it is remarkably different.”
Jones has said the Vols can’t use their youth “as a crutch, an excuse.” Jones made his point Monday when he cancelled the players’ scheduled post-practice interviews because he wasn’t happy with the team’s practice performance.
“It was eye-opening for a lot of the young guys because we’re not used to that from high school,” freshman receiver Vic Wharton said.
Tennessee’s recruiting class was ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple services. One week into training camp, the newcomers already have made an impact. The offense has more big-play ability. The defense has more speed, something Jones expects to carry over to special teams as well.
This group knows it’s being counted on to help Tennessee end a string of four straight losing seasons.
“You’ll be maybe walking on ‘The Hill’ and students come up to you and (say), ‘We’re ready for you to bring Tennessee back,’” freshman cornerback Emmanuel Moseley said.
The expectations surrounding this freshman class are evident from Tennessee’s media strategy. Six freshmen with family connections to former Tennessee athletes spoke to reporters before training camp. Over the last week, running back Jalen Hurd, kicker Aaron Medley, offensive tackle Coleman Thomas, tight end Ethan Wolf, Moseley and Wharton have been made available to the media.
Last year, the only freshman who spoke to reporters was quarterback Joshua Dobbs, whose first media session came in November.
“Why not let them talk to the media because they’re going to have to play in front of hundreds of thousands of people all the time,” Jones said. “(It’s) part of the maturity factor as well.”
The newcomers garnering the most attention are Hurd and receiver Josh Malone, who were both rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service. Malone caught three touchdown passes and Hurd was Tennessee’s leading rusher in the spring game.
But it isn’t only the elite recruits making an early statement.
Moseley, a consensus three-star prospect, has worked with the first-team defense throughout training camp. Moseley says he weighed 145 pounds during his January enrollment and now is up to 178.
Thomas, a three-star recruit who primarily played center in high school, is Tennessee’s likely starter at right tackle.
Wolf, Wharton, linebacker Dillon Bates and defensive linemen Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix also have earned plenty of praise.
As training camp develops, these newcomers could get more lessons similar to the one they received after Monday’s sluggish practice. Jones said last week that “sometimes we’re too quick to anoint and crown individuals when they have a long way to go.”
Tennessee’s program also has a long way to go. The newcomers are eager to help the Vols get there.
“We haven’t touched the field yet,” Moseley said. “We tell each other the media’s going to say we’re great, but we’ve just got to be ready when the chance comes. We’ve got to be ready to attack. I think we’re the class to bring Tennessee back. I think we can do it.”
NOTES: Sprint Cup driver Austin Dillon toured Tennessee’s athletic facilities and Neyland Stadium on Thursday. Dillon gave a signed driver’s helmet with the Tennessee logo to Jones and Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart. In return, Dillon received a Tennessee football helmet signed by Jones, a game ball and a brick with the word “One” inside the state of Tennessee. The word “One” is Tennessee’s team slogan this fall…. The sounds of a crying baby and breaking glass played over the loudspeaker as Medley attempted a field goal and the offense conducted red-zone drills. The sound effects are used to get the team accustomed to adversity.