Tennessee coach Butch Jones has come up with a few inspirational mantras.
“Power of One” “Six seconds, three great efforts” and “Next Man Up." The last of which, Volunteers have had to live up to.
Team 118 has seen 23 true freshman take the field this season and 37 total play their first game in a Volunteer uniform.
One reason being that the Vols are the only team in the FBS to not return a single starter on the offensive or defensive line. Another big reason is due to players sidelined with injuries.
Assistant head coach Willie Martinez said that the coaching staff puts a lot of pressure on the back-ups to know their position and what their assignment is.
“If something happens, whether it’s an injury or we just want to sub, they have to be able to execute as if they are the first team.” Martinez said. “We stress a lot about, if you’re in a back-up role, focusing on the mental rep when you’re not out there.”
It’s not just replacing injured players. At times it has been replacing players with not only a freshman but a freshman who is forced to a play position for which he may not be ready.
Dimarya Mixon has had to move from defensive end to the defensive line. At 6 feet 3, 282 pounds, the freshman is at a clear size disadvantage going up against SEC blockers. The guy playing right beside him, senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams, also went from the outside to the inside. Williams says it’s not so much the size but the technique that will make Mixon effective at this position.
“Especially being a smaller guy that Dimarya is, he has to play with great technique and great hands. He’s coming along and he’ll get it.”
Another Volunteer who knows what the freshmen are going through is safety LaDarell McNeil. Now a junior, McNeil played as a true freshman and can relate to the 23 that have been called on to make plays.
“You are kind of playing off instincts when you’re a freshman coming in and getting thrown into the fire," McNeil said. "As you play more, you get more experience. Then you meet with your coaches and knowing the ins and outs of the game, helps also.”
Coaches told InsideTennessee that everyone has to be ready to step up, just in case. That includes Nate Peterman. The back-up to Justin Worley at quarterback saw some action on Saturday and scored his first touchdown of the season against Chattanooga. Worley says Peterman has the skills if his number has to be called.
“Me seeing him day-in and day-out at practice, I see the potential," Worley told IT. "I see what he can do with the football in his hands. He’s a playmaker. He can make all the throws. He has just been in some tough situations, I can tell you that.”
Peterman replaced Worley when the starter went out with an injury against Georgia. The redshirt sophomore out of Fruit Cover, Florida completed a third-and-13 to Josh Malone in his opening series against the Bulldogs but struggled after that.
Cameron Sutton spoke about how he and other players have had to step with teammates sidelined with injuries.
“We a have a lot go guys that are stepping up on offense, defense and special teams. Guys are getting more reps and guys are getting more confidence in their game. Their always asking questions.” said the sophomore defensive back. “It starts throughout the week in practice and gaining more confidence and it’s starting to show on the field. “
As one of the 23 freshman that have seen the field this season, defensive back Emmanuel Moseley spoke even more about being ready to play.
“Coach tells us in practice you never know who’s going to get hurt and you have to be ready for when that time comes. A lot of our guys have been going down with injuries, our back-ups we’ve been ready and contributed pretty well.”
Moseley was called into action in the match-up with the Gators a couple of weeks ago but said he wasn’t that nervous.
“I come into practice everyday and I work my hardest and when it was my turn, I just thanked the Lord. It was my turn and I was ready to go.”
It’s not easy for a coaching staff to win football games with so many players who were not expected to play the minutes that they are or the position that they are. Whether it is injuries or other factors, it’s the hand coach Butch Jones and his staff have been dealt. If they want to make a bowl they’ll have to turn it into victories three more times this season.