If you signed a letter of intent to come to Tennessee as a member of the 2015 class, chances are you’re going to play this year. Many coaches make those kinds of promises to potential recruits, but with the Vols, it’s become a reality.
“We’re going to have to rely on a very large freshman class again to play,” Butch Jones said after Tuesday’s practice. “Just about everyone in our class will play.”
Tennessee played 23 freshmen last season — most of any team in the FBS — and with the way things are shaping up, it could contend for the title in 2015. Jones will again rely on his fountain of youth to plug holes on the coverage unit to both get them repetitions and help make the special teams a productive unit.
“You can see the benefits the last couple of years where a lot of freshmen have made their names on special team,” Jones said. “That gave them confidence going into Year 2. We’re going to need that from this freshman class.”
Players like linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive back RaShaan Gaulden honed their skillset on special teams, using their appearances on the field as a launch pad into starting roles. Gaulden, who was projected to start at nickelback in 2015, was lost for the season after an ankle injury in fall camp. Gaulden played in 11 games last season, notching five tackles on special teams and serving as a key cog to the unit.
“Our production, when we lose RaShaan Gaulden, your production on special teams goes down, so we need some of our youngsters to really step up and embrace this special teams game,” Jones said. “That means extra diligence. That means studying film before they even watch offense or defense of their particular side of the ball. They’re coming in and they’re watching special teams.”
One of those players expected to contribute in replacement of Gaulden is freshman wide receiver Jauan Jennings. The former quarterback from Murfreesboro has impressed Jones and the coaching staff as a wideout so far and will be asked to develop into a strong special teamer as he continues to master the receiver position.
“Jauan is involved very heavily in our special teams,” Jones said. “He is starting to emerge as one of our playmakers on offense and special teams. That is an attribute to his conditioning and mental toughness."
The third-year head coach hopes Jennings or another young player can develop into the type of player Devaun Swafford became in his time as a Vol.
The junior played in 13 games as a sophomore, starting on special teams, and was an important piece to the unit. Swafford’s career ended after suffering a spinal contusion in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa, and now Tennessee is tasked with replacing both his and Gaulden’s production on special teams as the team prepares for the regular season.
“Devaun Swafford is another individual who really made his mark on our football program through special teams,” Jones said. “He has started on all our special teams, so you take him off now as he is a student coach, you take Rashaan Gaulden's production off, and those are two valuable, valuable key contributors to your special teams game. But it's an opportunity for someone to step up and embrace that role and take advantage of that.”
Back in action
Freshman offensive guard Jack Jones, sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr., redshirt junior defensive end LaTroy Lewis, sophomore cornerback Justin Martin and junior wide receiver Marquez North all returned to the practice field Tuesday after each player missed time after being hurt during training camp.
All five players have an opportunity to work into the two-deep this season, if not before the opener versus Bowling Green.
More stripes gone
Cornerback Micah Abernathy and offensive guard Venzell Boulware both earned the right to have their newcomer black stripe removed from their helmets by their respective position groups. Team 119 celebrated the occasion with the rookies on Haslam Field.
Butch Jones talks start of season preparation
Click the InsideTennessee logo below to be taken to Tuesday's practice notes in premium message board VolChat: