NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Along much-traveled Interstate 40 near Nashville International Airport, University of Tennessee football purchased a billboard to recognize eight true freshmen roster members from the Nashville area.
It was done much to the delight of area Volunteers fans, who have cheered as Volunteers coach Butch Jones and staff make recruiting hauls from the growing talent pool in Nashville and surrounding environs. They were the core of the incoming group that not only was a consensus top-five recruiting class, but also touted to be a cornerstone for Volunteers resurgence.
Naturally, fans of rival Vanderbilt weren’t too thrilled with the big sign in their own backyard. After all, the Commodores have beaten Tennessee two straight years on the way to a program best three consecutive bowl berths under former coach James Franklin. That coincides with Tennessee’s dubious stretch of four-straight losing seasons and subsequent bowl drought that started in 2010.
Vanderbilt (3-8, 0-7) wants to continue that trend on Saturday against the visiting Volunteers (5-6, 2-5), who need a win in their regular-season finale to get bowl eligible. A win by the Commodores, who are 17-point underdogs, would ease some pain from a disappointing season and avert a first winless year of Southeastern Conference play since 2009.
"The great thing about staying at home and representing your home state institution is you play in front of your family and friends every home game in Neyland Stadium and 102,455 (fans)," Volunteers coach Butch Jones said of in-state recruits. "But I know it will be special. They get to go back to Nashville. But again, they are very, very mature. A lot of them have played there before in high school, so I don’t see that being any clutter or any distractions at all."
Four of those true freshmen — running back Jalen Hurd (Beech High), defensive end Derek Barnett (Brentwood Academy), offensive lineman Jashon Robertson (Montgomery Bell Academy) and kicker Aaron Medley (Marshall County) — have had season-long impacts for the Volunteers. The other four — defensive back Rashaan Gaulden (Independence High), defensive lineman Michael Sawyers (Ensworth) and wide receivers Josh Malone (Station Camp) and Vic Wharton (Independence) — have each logged snaps.
In all, Tennessee this season has played 23 true freshmen, most by any team in the country, and started 11, second-most nationally and trailing leader Tulane by just one.
"That’s all we talked about," Hurd said of the incoming class having immediate impact for the Volunteers, who fell 29-21 last Saturday to visiting Missouri in their first crack at six wins. "We tried to come in here and make a statement and try to help this team just as much as we can. The freshmen, we just tried to push everybody and to play our role in trying to help these seniors get to a bowl game."
Hurd leads the Volunteers with 756 rushing yards at 4.5 yards per carry, while his 68.7 rushing yards per game ranks third among SEC freshmen. Hurd has had three 100-yard games, the most for a Tennessee freshmen back since Jamal Lewis in 1997.
Barnett might be the team’s biggest surprise. He has already set team freshman records in sacks (nine) and tackles for lost yardage (18.5). The TFL total is third-best overall in the SEC and sixth nationally, while his sacks are fourth in the league and 15th in the country.
After moving from defense to guard at the start of August practice and winning the starting job three days later, Robertson is just the fourth Volunteer freshman to start a season-opening game on offensive line. Medley has been the starting kicker from Day One, and his 18 field goals rank first in the SEC and 11th nationally.
Jakob Johnson, another true freshmen who’s not from Nashville but rather Stuttgart, Germany, was forced into frontline duty last Saturday at middle linebacker. He had three tackles in his first college start while replacing suspended senior team leader A.J. Johnson, who is out indefinitely while being a subject in a rape and sexual assault case in Knoxville.
"It is very impressive," Jones said of Johnson’s play against Missouri. " … Here is a young man who is a true freshman but really maybe a high school senior because he has been in Germany. And so to be able to excel in the mental part of it, like he did last Saturday, was very impressive, and we are going to need that in moving forward Saturday."
Tennessee isn’t the only team showing up Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium having been served by youth this season. The Commodores have played 31 freshmen — either true or second-year redshirts — for the most in the country. Like the Volunteers, Vanderbilt has mined the local high school football scene to have 10 players on the roster from the Nashville area. Of 11 currently listed commitments for 2015 according to Scout.com, three are from this area.
"It’s a big deal because it’s where you live," Commodores first-year coach Derek Mason said of playing the in-state rival. "Vanderbilt’s won the last two games, so there’s added pressure for that group out east to win and get bowl eligible. There are things riding on this game, so there’s a lot to play for."
Vanderbilt has struggled to adapt to new offensive and defensive schemes. And there has been a quarterback carousel between current starter Johnny McCrary, a redshirt freshman, Patton Robinette, a sophomore who was initially the starter before a concussion, and senior Stephen Rivers and true freshman Wade Freebeck.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has settled in nicely at quarterback with sophomore Joshua Dobbs, who took over for injured senior Justin Worley four games ago. Although he didn’t play as well against Missouri as in previous wins over Kentucky and South Carolina, he still has compiled 1,287 total yards of offense, including 985 passing with eight touchdowns and three interceptions and 302 rushing with four scores.
"There’s a lot behind it and in front of it," Mason said of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. "When you talk about recruiting and everything else, there’s a lot riding on this game. Let’s make it about what it is and push all the chips in and let’s go play."