Blevins: Help is on the way

InsideTennessee bring you the best coverage of Tennessee football. Scroll down to read a column for IT reporter Riley Blevins on why non-senior starters shouldn't be comfortable after Saturday.

For non-senior starters, Saturday is the last game where there's no need to look over their shoulders.

Enjoy the comfort while it lasts. It has a fast-approaching expiration date.

After those 60-minutes waste away against Kentucky, competition is coming.

Lots and lots of eager competition.

In January, Tennessee will welcome at least 14 early enrollees who are chomping at the bit to steal a starting job or significant playing time.

With all the voids left from lack of depth and the graduating class, newcomers' odds of cracking the two-deep are very promising.

"I'm excited about all the new guys," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "Very, very excited."

As he should be.

Reasons are obvious why Jancek and the rest of the coaching staff should anxiously await spring.

The likes of Jalen Hurd, Dontavius Blair, Daniel Helm, LaVon Pearson and Joseph Henderson – to name a few – immediately bolster both depth and talent.

But gifted early enrollees do more than patch up a depleted roster. They improve the players around them.

If you know there's a player waiting behind you, hoping you slip – you won't, or you'll try your hardest not to. Practice effort will surely increase. If you take a play off, it could be your last.

Simply put, competition is a catalyst. One that's been missing on Rocky Top for a long, long time.

Just look at this season. The offensive line was set in stone from Day 1, but that's it.

At all other positions, it was a case of finding and fielding the best of the worst.

Just look at the pass catchers.

Josh Smith, a Knoxville product, only sees significant playing time as a freshman at one other SEC school – Kentucky, and that's still a maybe.

Jacob Carter and Cody Blanc saw more snaps at receiver than future first-rounders at Alabama. Together, Carter and Blanc played more than double the snaps of Alabama's all-everything freshman running back Derrick Henry.

Joe Stocstill, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Lewisburg, Tenn., will serve as the Vols' No. 2 tight end and see significant playing time in Lexington because of an injury to A.J. Branisel – another freshman who redshirts at most other SEC schools.

Get the gist?

The pickings were slim. And that's putting it kindly.

It's all about to change.

It'll be a case of survival of the fittest once spring practice rolls around.

"That competition," Jancek said, "when you add that, what happens is guys will start to step up and get better. It's like, 'Hey, look there's some new guys in town.'"

Very few starting jobs are guaranteed next season. The new guys know that.

While the depth will still be young, snaps will finally be earned, not given.

Pearson, who's playmaking abilities have been likened to some guy named Cordarrelle Patterson, and dare I say Josh Malone (let's not get too ahead of ourselves), will challenge Smith, Jason Croom, Johnathon Johnson and others for balls.

Helm and Ethan Wolf, a pair of Scout four-stars, threaten both Branisel and Brendan Downs right when they unload the last box into their dorm.

"We need to add to the competitive nature and structure of not just the receiver position, but every position," coach Butch Jones said Monday. "We need to add more competition."


Just look at the defensive line, where competition is needed perhaps more than any other position.

All four starters — Jacques Smith, Daniel McCullers, Daniel Hood and Corey Miller — are gone around Saturday night at 11.

And the likes of Jordan Williams, LaTroy Lewis, Danny O'Brien and Corey Vereen don't just have to worry about soon-to-be sophomores and redshirt freshmen Jason Carr, Malik Brown, Jaylen Miller and Kendall Vickers.

That's where the JUCO transfers come in. The players who are brought in solely to make an immediate impact.

The winter welcoming of DaVonte Lambert, Dimarya Mixon and Owen Williams should make coach Steve Stripling's giddy. His daily defensive line drills will soon transform into a regular battle ground.

"Recruiting and early enrollees," Jones said, "that's how you improve."

Improvements, competition, talent — it's all on its way in January.

The scary part?

That's all before the rest of the Vols' second-ranked recruiting class arrives.

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