In retrospect, Rick Clausen may have actually been the best choice to start the season at quarterback for UT, but he only had one start in two seasons at LSU and had only practiced football at Tennessee. It wasn't until the redshirt junior was forced into action following season-ending injuries to Schaeffer and Ainge, that anyone knew just how capable he was. A year later Schaeffer is gone, leaving Clausen and Ainge to battle for the No. 1 spot in preseason practice.
In a note of irony, freshman Jonathan Crompton, who is the most celebrated UT QB signee since Tee Martin, currently occupies the same position Clausen did in 2004 as the No. 3 man on the depth chart. That may not seem significant now with the Vols preparing to embark on what many hope will be a championship campaign, but it could become critical before the season is concluded.
After all, No. 1 and No. 1A on the charts may have a collective four years of college football under their belts, but only five starts each. That's hardly an insurmountable experience gap for a player of Crompton's considerable talents, especially when coupled with the fact the North Carolina native has been studying UT's offense for three seasons in anticipation of his arrival this fall. Besides, last season the Vols lost two starters in the course of four quarters. In 1994, UT lost starter Jerry Colquitt on the first play of the season, paving the way for Peyton Manning's unobstructed ascendancy and proving it doesn't require a hostile takeover to become the starter. The eternal question is: how long would it have taken Manning to become No. 1 without the abrupt intervention of fate?
Obviously, there are more pressing needs for Phillip Fulmer and staff than quarterback, but Crompton may fall into that first category of freshmen who are simply too legit to sit. Only time will tell. What we do know for certain is that he is one of two five-star signees in UT's No. 1 ranked Class of 2005.
Neither Herschel Walker or Jamal Lewis were starters at the outset of their college careers, but it didn't take long for either to become a first-year star. In fact, both Walker and Lewis were actually more productive as freshmen than they were as juniors. Ditto for Michael Munoz, who earned the nod at tackle his freshman year and had what was arguably his best season, before injuries and surgeries eventually eroded his blocking skills and durability.
There are no hard-and-fast rules on the subject of playing true freshmen. Generally speaking, it's easier to play a freshman at wide receiver or running back than it is at quarterback or the line. Neither is there a timetable for maturity. Some players always have it while others never get it. It's all a process of trial and error. However, one thing is for sure, it makes little sense to redshirt a prospect with NFL potential. The Vols did just that with Chuck Webb as a freshman in 1988 only to see him enter the draft after his sophomore season in 1990. You think UT couldn't have used Webb while struggling to a 5-6 mark in ‘88? Then again, Webb didn't need the punishment of playing behind a suspect offensive line, and that may have entered the thought process.
In 1989, the needs of the many superseded the needs of the new, as freshman wide receiver Carl Pickens was pressed into service at safety. The 18 year-old solidified a shaky secondary, helping lead the Vols to an 11-1 record and the Cotton Bowl. Consequently, Tennessee had the biggest one-year turnaround in college football, proving the impact one rookie can potentially have on a battle scarred, veteran squad.
Freshmen like Manning, Lewis and Pickens are not the norm, but there's nothing unusual about true freshmen playing key roles on winning teams. What freshmen will have the most influence on the Vols' upcoming season?
We'll take a look at that in part two of this Freshmen of Influence story.