The 32 signees that make up Tennessee’s true freshman class were heralded as a consensus top-five recruiting haul.
They’re the foundation for what second-year Volunteers coach Butch Jones is banking on to be an eventual turnaround as the program seeks its its first winning record in four years and its first bowl berth since 2010.
Nearly all those true freshmen — and some more than others in higher-profile roles — will get a chance to begin realizing their college potential Sunday night when Tennessee opens the season against visiting Utah State.
"We are going to be playing upwards to 28 true freshmen," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose roster turned over nearly half of its players. "And that is true freshmen, individuals who just concluded their first week and a half of school."
Tennessee listed 16 freshmen — 13 true and three redshirt — on the two-deep depth chart heading into the opener. Three starters — right guard Jashon Robertson, defensive end Derek Barnett and tight end Ethan Wolf — are true freshmen.
Two heralded true freshmen — running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone — are listed as backups, but each were considered amongst the best in the nation in high school and are expected to have immediate impact for the Vols. Hurd will share carries with senior Marlin Lane, while Malone joins a congested wide receivers group featuring sophomore Marquez North.
"I’m definitely going to be nervous for my first game, that’s for every football game," said the sturdy 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd, who ran for a Tennessee high school-record of 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns as a junior at Hendersonville Beech (Tenn.) High. "But that nervousness is really excitement and your excitement to play the game."
Two true freshmen starters — Robertson (Montgomery Bell Academy) and Barnett (Brentwood Academy) — prepped in Nashville join lines that have no returnees.
"I was excited," the 6-3, 267-pound Barnett, a two-time Tennessee Mr. Football, said of being listed as a starter. "That means I’m held to a higher standard now, and I have to do the little things right and continue to get better. I can’t be happy and complacent."
The other true freshman getting a starting nod is Wolfe, an athletic and agile prospect at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. While listed as the starter, one of his co-backups is Daniel Helm, a redshirt freshman.
"It’s going to be a big environment that a lot of us aren’t used to playing in," Wolfe said of hitting the field in an anticipated sold-out crowd of 102,455 fans at Neyland Stadium. "But we can’t use that as an excuse. We have to control our emotions. If you get over-hyped before the game even starts, it’ll mess with your mind and you’ll make mental mistakes, and you can’t afford to do that at this level."
The Volunteers aren’t bereft of veterans, though, eager to be a large part of the Tennessee turnaround, too. Senior Justin Worley won the starting nod at quarterback, while linebackers A.J. Johnson, a senior who skipped turning pro, and junior Curt Maggitt, back after missing last year with a knee injury, make for one of the best defensive tandems in the country.
The acceptance by the upperclassmen of the much-ballyhooed incoming class has gone a long way in offering promise for the Volunteers. Each grouping quickly understood that they needed each other.
It certainly is a unique situation that as many as 28 true freshmen could play Sunday night, although many will see action on special teams. Jones admits that spending so little time with so many players that will hit the field is something new.
"Well, you learn as time goes on," Jones said of feeling out his team, "and when you have a veteran group, you’re through a year or two with them. You have spring football. With this football team, half of them, 14 of them came in January, so you have 15 practices with them. That’s all. More than half of them came in June of July."
Which pushed the team to training camp, one that saw a quarterback battle won by Worley over sophomores Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs and an influx of nearly half the roster of incomers trying to not only learn how to play college football, but be ready to play right away.
"You go through training camp," said Jones, whose Vols went 5-7 last year, "so we’ll have had about 26 practices with them, with this football team. So much is team chemistry. I believe this is one of the closest knit groups I’ve been around in a very long time. We talk about team chemistry and all those things that go into it, but with this football team, there’s so many new faces.
" … I’m excited to see how they perform when you turn the scoreboard on and it’s for real."