Too young to win?

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With most of Tennessee’s 28 freshmen expected to play key roles this fall, the cynics are saying the Vols will be too young to win.

To which veteran Vols say, “Guess again.” They believe the talent and work ethic of this rookie class will trump its youth and inexperience.

“Age is nothing but a number,” receiver Marquez North said.

He should know, since he started 11 of 12 games as a freshman in 2013.

“It’s all about maturity and how you handle things,” North added. “I feel like this is a mature team, and we’re eager to handle it.”

Counting four junior-college transfers, Tennessee has 32 newcomers in its 2014 signing class. Fourteen of those rookies enrolled at mid-term and participated in spring practice, however, giving them a huge head start in the development process.

“The difference six months make in the development of 17- to 18-year-olds is amazing,” head coach Butch Jones said, adding that “we now view those 14 newcomers as veterans…. They have been a great resource to the other signees.”

Knowing most starting jobs are wide open, the other 18 newcomers reported physically and mentally ready to challenge for spots. Noting that they “have really caught up,” Jones expects several to crack the two-deep depth chart … eventually.

“They may not be ready Game 1 or Game 2,” Jones said. “The measuring stick may point to Game 3 or Game 4. Or we may say we just need to continue to progress, and our goal is to have him ready by SEC play.”

Whether they play in Game 1 or Game 7, most of Tennessee’s 32 newcomers will see the field at some point in 2014. The Vols could be the youngest team in the SEC this season but that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to failure.

“I don’t see that as an excuse at all,” redshirt junior center Mack Crowder said. “Youth is not an excuse that we’ll be able to say ‘That’s the reason we lost the game on Saturday.’ We’re just going to have to suck it up and play like veterans.”

That’s especially true for the guys like Crowder who really are veterans. They’ll need to carry the team while the youngsters are growing up during the first half of the season. That puts a little extra pressure on the upperclassmen.

“It does,” Crowder conceded, “but that’s something I’ve been wanting for a while — this leadership role and being able to have the knowledge to help coach the younger guys. I finally have the knowledge to where I can coach the playbook just as good as the coaches can. That’s exciting.”

Senior quarterback Justin Worley believes Tennessee’s string of four losing seasons in a row is about to end, no matter how many young faces are in the lineup.

“I think our team chemistry and the respect we have for each other is at an all-time high since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve really bonded as a team, I feel like. I know it sounds like a cliché but it’s true. We’ve got a good group of seniors – not many of them, but a good group – and I think we can take this program to another level.”

Much of the optimism is based on the talent and determination the 14 early enrollees exhibited during spring practice.

“They’ve come in and worked hard,” Worley said. “Whether it’s workouts or player-led throwing or whatever, they’ve all responded well. And I think they’ve taken advantage of this time with coaches that we’ve gotten this summer.”

Based on spring practice, several of the mid-term additions project to start this fall. Emmanuel Moseley appears to have a cornerback job virtually locked up. Tight end Ethan Wolf looks like a first-teamer. So do Coleman Thomas at right offensive tackle and JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair at left tackle. JUCO Owen Williams appears likely to start at defensive tackle. Jalen Hurd is pushing Marlin Lane for the running back spot. Two more mid-termers — JUCO Von Pearson and prep superstar Josh Malone — seem destined to start alongside North at receiver.

“They’re all eager to win, too,” North said of the newbies. “Von is real loud and real confident. Josh is more cool and laid-back but he’s also confident. Everybody’s confident.”

That confidence is understandable. Whereas Tennessee’s seniors have been beaten down by three consecutive 5-7 seasons, the newcomers have no negative experiences to draw on. Rightly or wrongly, they expect to kick butt from Day 1. Redshirt junior defensive end Curt Maggitt, who started as a freshman in 2011, believes that’s a positive.

“These younger guys, they’re not going to really know what to expect at mid-year or the end of the season,” he said, “so they’re just going to play football – one game at a time.”

Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams also likes the enthusiasm of this freshman class, noting: “You have a lot of people eager to learn and a lot of seniors who know what losing looks like, and we’re not going to let that happen. Almost a third of the team is brand new, so it’s on us (older guys) to get them going.”

Sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who started the last four games of 2013 as a true freshman, says the rookies can help a lot if they prepare mentally, as well as physically.

“The key for them is to get a jump-start on that playbook,” he said. “Know it inside and out because when you’re on the field and the bullets are flying if you’re thinking and not reacting you’ll get behind. Don’t get ahead, don’t get caught up in being tired. Just take it day by day and give it the best that you can. If you do, the coaches will see that, and you’ll put yourself in position to play early.”

Newcomers such as Hurd, Pearson, Malone and Wolf provide a big-play dimension that was seriously lacking from Tennessee’s offense last fall. Weapons of this caliber obviously make the quarterback’s job a lot easier.

“I’m extremely excited,” Dobbs said. “You saw in the spring game the ones that came in early definitely had a huge impact. There’s a lot of new playmakers that we have on the team. They’re pushing the older guys to get better.”

That’s especially true of Pearson and Malone, who dazzled practice observers with spectacular plays during the spring.

“As a position group, the receivers continue to grow every day,” Dobbs said. “You can see it when we throw. They’re faster. They’re stronger. They’re more physical. They’re getting better every day, so I’m really excited to see what happens this fall camp.”

Jalen Hurd video interview

Marquez North video interview

Von Pearson video interview

Ethan Wolf video interview

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