Homegrown heroes load up Vols lineup

InsideTennessee gives you the stories that other websites overlook. Check out this piece on the unusual number of in-state players starting for the 2014 Vol football team:

Tennessee’s heavy reliance on freshmen this football season has overshadowed a development that is just as noteworthy: an equally heavy reliance on homegrown talent.

Counting placement specialist Aaron Medley, kickoff specialist George Bullock and return specialist Devrin Young, a dozen in-state players have started in the 2014 Vols’ first three games. The number is 13 if you count freshman running back Jalen Hurd, who essentially is a co-starter with senior Marlin Lane.

You have to go back 20 years — to 1994 — to find the last time the Big Orange lineup featured so many homegrown players. Fourteen in-state guys started that season.

By comparison, Tennessee’s 2010 starting lineup featured just four in-state products — Nashville’s James Stone at center, Memphis’ Chris Walker at defensive end, Farragut’s Nick Reveiz at linebacker and Paris’ Marsalis Teague at cornerback. Over the past 20 years the Vols have averaged seven in-state starters per season. The 2014 total of 13 (counting Hurd) represents nearly twice that.

Clearly, the Big Orange must recruit nationally to be competitive in the rugged SEC. Still, a solid nucleus of in-state talent is very beneficial.

“It’s great,” Vol head man Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “We talk about winning the state. We want individuals, first and foremost, that have grown up on Tennessee football — understand the standard, the expectation that comes along with representing their home state.”

The coach is getting his wish. What follows is a list of in-state players who have started for the Vols this fall:

-Knoxville’s Jacob Gilliam (left tackle Game 1)

-Knoxville’s Brett Kendrick (left tackle Game 2)

-Bristol’s Mack Crowder (center Games 1, 2, 3)

-Nashville’s Jashon Robertson (right guard Games 1, 2, 3)

-Knoxville’s Kyler Kerbyson (right tackle Games 1 and 2, left tackle Game 3)

-Knoxville’s Josh Smith (wide receiver Game 3)

-Lewisburg’s Aaron Medley (placements Games 1, 2, 3)

-Knoxville’s George Bullock (kickoffs Games 1, 2, 3)

-Nashville’s Derek Barnett (defensive end Games 1 and 3)

-Clarksville’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin (linebacker Games 1, 2, 3)

-Knoxville’s Todd Kelly (strong safety Games 2 and 3)

-Knoxville’s Devrin Young (kick returns Games 1, 2, 3)

As noted above, Hurd may not be starting but he’s contributing like a starter. He leads all Vol backs in carries (48), rushing yards (209), receptions (four) and receiving yards (40).

“We’ve been very pleased with the in-state players we’ve been able to attract here,” Jones said. “It’s all about winning home. It starts with that, then we venture off. If you look at the true freshmen that are playing, a lot of them are from in-state and a lot of them are from the mid-state area.”

RECRUITING FLASHBACK

A few in-state Vols signed with Tennessee simply because it was their best offer coming out of high school. The vast majority, however, exhibit a deep and abiding respect for the program and its rich tradition. Wearing the orange and running through the “T” means a little extra to them.

"It's amazing,” Hurd said. “This is my home, and it always will be. To be able to play college football at home and run through the ‘T’ after seeing it while I was growing up all the time is amazing."

Malone feels the same way, noting: "Oh, it's special. Running through the T as an instate-born Tennessee kid is very unique. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will never get old."

Kelly called signing with Tennessee “a dream come true,” adding: “I've dreamed about it for 18 years, and now it's finally come true. Now it's a business and you've got to win ball games. It's awesome but I've got to do my job and play my best for the state of Tennessee.”

Fellow Knoxville native Kerbyson also grew up hoping to become a Volunteer.

"It’s really special,” he said. “I don't know if a lot of the other guys have the same feeling as me because I’ve been excited about running through the T my whole life. They got excited through recruiting but I knew about it – the tradition and all the stuff that came along with it — a long time ago. I’ve been really excited for this process all the way up."

Kicker Medley nearly gushed while describing the thrill of playing for his home-state university.

"It's great,” he said. “Our hometown (Lewisburg) actually had a bunch of tickets sold for the Arkansas State game, so it was good to get my hometown up here for a game. It's great running through the T. I remember running through with Coleman Thomas, looking at the crowd and thinking: 'I get to enjoy this for the next four years.' It's unbelievable."

Reeves-Maybin also grew up hoping to run through the T and be cheered by 100,000 Vol fans on home Saturdays.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons I came here,” he said. “I’m a Tennessee guy, loved Tennessee my whole life. It’s definitely fun running through that T and getting to experience all of the things the University of Tennessee brings.”

Growing up near the Virginia state line, Crowder was not a Big Orange fan in his teens. Since enrolling, however, he has developed a deep appreciation for what it means to represent his home-state university.

“It means everything,” he said. “When I got here I learned about the tradition and the guys that got here before me. Now I’m all bought in to Tennessee. Having that feeling when I run through the T, now I know what the tradition’s all about. Now I know that the hype is real whenever you get here. It’s the best feeling in the world, the best place to play.”

"I’m a Tennessee guy, loved Tennessee my whole life."
— Jalen Reeves-Maybin

One reason Tennessee is a great place to play is the passion of its fans. Their view of the players borders on hero worship.

“It definitely gives me confidence, knowing these fans have our backs and they’re going to be there for us no matter what,” Crowder said. “In their eyes I guess you’re a hero to them for carrying on the tradition and being able to play for the Vols.”

Living in Knoxville, Kerbyson is constantly reminded of the rabid support.

“It’s really nice when people stop you on the street and say, ‘Hey, you did a great job. We believe in you guys. Keep grinding’ and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s great to hear from the fans.”

Because they are celebrities in their hometowns, in-state Vols don’t get a whole lot of privacy.

“Sometimes it’s hard to go out,” Reeves-Maybin said, “but it’s nothing too bad. I deal with it.”

Clearly, there are a lot of perks for an in-state player who chooses to represent Tennessee. So, what is the downside?

"That's a good question. I couldn't tell you,” Kelly said. “It's pretty awesome, being from the state of Tennessee and playing for the Tennessee Volunteers.”

Medley was even more emphatic when asked about the downside to being a homegrown Vol.

“I don't think there is any downside,” he said. “I think it's just the greatest thing ever — being able to represent the team you grew up loving and watching. It's a blessing."

See what Tennessee's running backs coach said about the depth at his position and the weekend matchup by clicking play on the InsideTennessee video below:

Robert Gillespie video interview


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