Tyler Bray turned around the 2010 season after being inserted as the starting quarterback. Ja'Wuan James started every game at right offensive tackle. Fellow rookies Zach Fulton and James Stone were part-time starters in the O-line. Justin Hunter proved to be a field-stretcher at wide receiver and frosh running mate Da' Rick Rogers contributed significantly in November. Rajion Neal finished the season as the No. 2 tailback. Brent Brewer started the last half of the season at strong safety and John Propst played key snaps at middle linebacker. Corey Miller and Jacques Smith were key backups at defensive end. Michael Palardy handled the kickoff chores and filled in on field goals while Daniel Lincoln was hurt.
All told, 12 true freshmen saw significant action in 2010. Frosh could play similarly critical roles at several positions in 2011, meaning prospects who value playing time should take a long look at Tennessee. Here's why:
Quarterback: Should rising senior Matt Simms leave, there is no experienced backup behind Bray. Thus, incoming freshman Justin Worley (Rock Hill, S.C.) would compete with redshirt freshmen Nash Nance and Doak Raulston for the No. 2 job.
Tailback: Tauren Poole will be back after rushing for 1,034 yards as a junior but the only other returning tailbacks are rising sophomores Neal (46 carries, 197 yards) and Toney Williams (5 carries, 11 yards). Clearly, commitments Marlin Lane (Daytona Beach) and Tom Smith (Apopka, Fla.) will get every chance to win backup jobs.
Wide receiver: Only three wideouts who caught a pass in 2010 are still going to be around for 2011 - Justin Hunter (16 receptions), Zach Rogers (14) and Da'Rick Rogers (11). Sophomore Matt Milton and Middle Tennessee transfer DeMario Williams show potential but incoming freshmen DeAnthony Arnett (Saginaw, Mich.) and Vincent Dallas (Ellenwood, Ga.) are virtual locks to make immediate impact in the receiver rotation.
Tight end: With Luke Stocker out of eligibility, Tennessee returns just one tight end who caught a pass last fall, rising junior Mychal Rivera (11 receptions). Rising seniors Ben Bartholomew and Brent Slusher also return but, given Derek Dooley's fondness for multiple-tight end sets, odds are good that incoming freshman Brendan Downs (Bristol) will be in the mix somewhere. Should he sign with Tennessee, Memphis' Cameron Clear could have an immediate impact at tight end.
Offensive line: Four of 2010's five starters return, and Marques Pair will be up from the redshirt ranks. Still, Tennessee's glaring lack of depth means newcomers Kyler Kerbyson (Knoxville), Marcus Jackson (Vero Beach, Fla.), Mack Crowder (Bristol) and Alan Posey (Athens, Ga.) could contend for extensive playing time from Day One. So could Nashville's ballyhooed Antonio Richardson, should he choose the Vols.
Defensive end: Both 2010 starters are gone and 2009 starter Ben Martin is coming off an Achilles injury that wiped out what should've been his senior season last fall. Tennessee returns two talented sophomores (Jacques Smith, Corey Miller), along with rising junior Willie Bohannon. Redshirt freshman Martaze Jackson, a hybrid end/linebacker, also will be available next fall. Still, incoming freshmen Jordan Williams and Trevarris Saulsberry (Gainesville, Fla.) have a chance to crack the playing rotation.
Defensive tackle: Minus 2010 starter Victor Thomas, Tennessee's depth at the position is perilously thin. Rising senior Malik Jackson played well after moving over from end but rising junior Montori Hughes was wildly inconsistent. Joseph Ayres was solid as a walk-on freshman and undersized Marlon Walls is expected back in 2011 after a torn Achilles wiped out his 2010 season. Transfer Maurice Couch of Garden City (Kan.) Junior College and Allan Carson of Oxford (Ala.) High School are in the fold for 2011 and the Vols are fighting the good fight for heralded high schoolers Tim Jernigan (Lake City, Fla.) and Gabe Wright (Columbus, Ga.).
Linebacker: Rising junior Herman Lathers is the only returning starter but rising senior Austin Johnson is likely to start in 2011 after playing extensively as a backup in 2010. Rising junior Greg King started early in 2009 but has been sidelined by injuries ever since. John Propst and Daryl Vereen will vie for first-team assignments after playing well as second-teamers late last fall. Redshirt freshman Raiques Crump has superior potential but the Vols desperately need help from their freshman class. A.J. Johnson (Gainesville, Ga.) and Christian Harris (Woodstock, Ga.) are locked in, and Tennessee is still in the hunt for 4-star linebackers Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky.) and Curt Maggitt (Palm Beach, Fla.).
Safety: Starters Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer return from 2010 but there is absolutely no depth behind them, since Tyler Wolf is out of eligibility and rising sophomore Dontavis Sapp played mostly on special teams. That means newcomers Brian Randolph (Marietta, Ga.), Pat Martin (Greenville, S.C.), Izauea Lanier (East Mississippi Jr. College), Geraldo Orta (Valdosta, Ga.) and Tino Thomas (Memphis) will get every opportunity to show what they can do in August. Tennessee remains in the hunt for Byron Moore (Los Angeles Harbor Junior College), who could have immediate impact.