Calling Tennessee’s football team young is like calling Mt. Everest a hill.
The Vols played 23 freshmen in 2014 and will again ask a host of their 55 underclassmen to provide meaningful production on the field this season.
With spring practice in full swing, a bevy of the team’s young talent has been able to snag valuable reps as injuries and a lack of depth hammered head coach Butch Jones’ squad in the offseason.
The current first team consists of four offensive starters and three defensive starters who are redshirt sophomores or younger, with a whopping 16 underclassmen helping to make up the second team offense and defense.
That number could decrease in the fall when guys like linebacker Curt Maggit and defensive end Derek Barnett come back from injuries, but for now the team’s youth is being forced to grow up faster than the tempo of a Tennessee practice.
Offensive lineman Jashon Robertson knows how it is.
Robertson started all 13 games last year as a freshman and became just the fourth true frosh offensive lineman in Tennessee history to start a season-opening game. He’s watched as current young guns like Jack Jones and Chance Hall get thrown into the mix as eager freshmen, and this time he’s able to see the transformation play out instead of having to go through it himself.
“They’re increasing their knowledge of the game every day. They have to have a snap and clear mindset between plays because they’re going to make mistakes,” Robertson said.
“The main thing I see out of them is they play hard and they play physical. As long as they do that, we can help clean up some technical things and get them going. They’re definitely learning fast in their learning curve.”
On the defensive side, freshman Shy Tuttle has played his way onto the first team before even coming close to hitting his ceiling. The 6-3, 315-pound behemoth has already made waves in the spring and will undoubtedly compete for a starting spot when August rolls around.
|DEFENSIVE TACKLE SHY TUTTLE|
“He’s done a great job. For most college athletes, you’ve got to get used to the college speed, I guess, but he’s been doing a good job,” fellow lineman Kendal Vickers said.
“I know he’s been thrown into the fire, but I feel like he’s done a great job of just coming in and coming to work. He has a great mindset. He works hard and he takes constructive criticism.”
With the way things have played out over the past two seasons, the sophomores at Tennessee speak like grizzled veterans. The seniors, on the other hand, are akin to Yoda-like sages.
Mack Crowder is one of the few redshirt seniors on the team and he’s witnessed the massive turnover on both sides of the ball. Crowder played in just two games his redshirt freshman season and now looks on as players like Hall and Jones vie for playing time when they should still be in high school.
“They just come to work every day, and that’s what you want from them. Yeah, they’re going to mess up. That’s expected,” he said.
“They’re still supposed to be in high school right now, but they just come to work every day, really try to be physical.”
|QUARTERBACK QUINTEN DORMADY|
If anyone can appreciate what the young guys on the team are doing, it’s quarterback Josh Dobbs. Dubbed the “CEO of the team” by his head coach, Dobbs is tasked with helping cultivate Tennessee’s youthful talent, blending it seamlessly into the well-oiled machine that Jones and company are building in Knoxville. He’s also the mentor for freshmen quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jauan Jennings.
For everyone involved, it’s been so far, so good.
“They’re doing a good job. With more reps, obviously, you’re going to continue to progress. It shows every day when you watch the film,” Dobbs said.
“They’re night and day from their first day when they stepped on the practice field. They’re definitely improving and it’s definitely nice to see.”
Butch Jones after spring practice 10