Tennessee’s 2014 signing class may prove to be the gift that keeps on giving. Twelve rookies combined for 72 starts during the just-concluded ’14 season but several more appear primed for breakout years in 2015.
InsideTennessee asked some Vol veterans during TaxSlayer Bowl preparations to pinpoint newcomers who did not make a significant mark in 2014 but could play key roles in 2015. We disqualified the dozen freshmen who started games last fall. They were as follows:
Offensively, Jashon Robertson started all 13 games at right guard. Ethan Wolf started 10 games at tight end. Jalen Hurd started nine games at running back and Josh Malone six games at wide receiver. Coleman Thomas started five games at right tackle, Vic Wharton two games at wide receiver and Daniel Helm two games at tight end. JUCO transfer Von Pearson got eight starts at wideout. Helm and Wharton are transferring, so they wouldn’t be around for Vol fans to watch in 2015 anyhow.
When asked to pinpoint players to watch in 2015, several Vols pegged redshirt freshman Kendal Vickers, a Class of 2013 signee who practiced but did not play until this past fall.
“I think Kendal Vickers has been practicing pretty good,” senior cornerback Justin Coleman told IT. “He’s gotten a lot bigger, a lot stronger, a lot faster. I feel like he changed his mind about what he really wanted to do on the football field. He really wanted to play because he loves football.”
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams saw his backup grow a lot — physically and athletically — during the 2014 season.
“Watch for Kendal Vickers,” Williams said. “He moved from D-end to D-tackle. He put on 20-something pounds during the season — and that’s tough to do — but anything they ask him to do, he gets it done. He’s going to be a great player, I promise you.”
Asked who he sees as break-out players for 2015, one Vol veteran mentioned two young defensive tackles – Vickers and true freshman Dimarya Mixon.
“I think on the D-line with Dimarya Mixon and Kendal Vickers,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “They've been having good practices, getting their mindset ready to play. Those two guys have really stood out to me.”
With Coleman departing, Tennessee also needs to find a starting cornerback for 2015. Several Vols believe RaShaan Gaulden will be the guy.
“I would definitely look out for Rashaan Gaulden,” Williams said. “He started out early in the year and couldn’t really find himself. But about three-fourths of the way through the season he found a big role on the kickoff team. Now he’s starting to find a bigger role on defense. He’s doing great things.”
Sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton won’t be surprised if Gaulden is lining up at the other corner spot in 2015.
“Gaulden is coming along,” Sutton said. “I’m excited for him next year, to see what he’s going to do, along with those other guys on the back end.”
|TENNESSEE LINEBACKER DILLON BATES|
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Tennessee’s 2014 signing class is that there are no obvious busts in the group. In addition to the dozen rookies who started and the players mentioned earlier in this article, several more appear capable of filling key roles in 2015. These include:
-Linebacker Cortez McDowell, who registered 19 stops (13 on special teams) and a fumble recovery
-Linebacker Dillon Bates, who recorded 6 stops (2 on special teams) before suffering a season-ending injury
-Defensive back Evan Berry, who made 5 tackles (2 on special teams) and shows great promise as a return specialist
-Linebacker Elliott Berry, who saw mostly special teams duty and did not record a tackle
-Linebacker Gavin Bryant, who redshirted
Offensive tackle Charles Mosley underwent surgery before fall camp began, so the jury is still out on him.
Given the overall quality of the 2014 signing class, it isn’t surprising that several Vols hedged a bit when asked which rookies Big Orange fans should be watching closely in 2015.
“They need to look for everybody,” sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen told IT. “Everybody’s working hard in practice and looking to get better. I’d say (look out for) every freshman.”
Sophomore safety Brian Randolph agreed. When asked which unheralded freshmen he expects to make impact in 2015, he replied: “All of ‘em. They come in each and every day, they work hard each and every day. Some haven’t had the opportunity to play but they’re helping out in different areas – special teams, getting reps here and there in practice. It’s all about progressing. They’ve just got to keep progressing, keep moving forward. Hopefully, they’ll get in next year and they’ll do big things.”
Sutton echoed that sentiment almost word for word, noting: “I look for all of ‘em (to make impact). They haven’t had the opportunity to play right now but they continue to get better each and every day, and that’s what it’s all about – progress.
“They come to work each day with the mindset and mentality of getting the work done. I’m excited for them next year and I’m excited for what they’re going to bring to the team next year.”
No discussion of Tennessee’s 2014 signing class would be complete without acknowledging the oft-overlooked contribution of Aaron Medley. All he did as a freshman was connect on 20 of 26 field goals and 42 of 43 PATs. He also averaged 60 yards per kickoff with 15 touchbacks.
“There were a lot of question marks going into the season, especially the placekicking with Michael Palardy gone,” head coach Butch Jones told IT. “But I think Aaron Medley really stepped up and really took ownership in that job.”