Freshman quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer injected new life into the 2004 Vols, spurring them to an SEC East title and a 10-3 record. Freshmen Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, Wayne Chism and Josh Tabb provided a similar lift for Tennessee's basketball team last winter, sparking a 24-11 record and a Sweet 16 berth.
It's too early to say how many freshmen will play key roles for the 2007 Football Vols and it's too early to say this will be a spectacular season. But this much is already clear: These freshmen are going to be something special.
"We've got one heck of a freshman class," head coach Phillip Fulmer said following Tuesday's scrimmage. "That's the reason I'm so thrilled that (injured defensive end) Ben Martin is going to be OK. Ben Martin is going to be an All-American here. And (cornerback) Eric Berry will be."
Fulmer said there are several "wonderful young men" in this class, specifically mentioning receiver Gerald Jones before noting: "I could go on and on. It's a special group of kids. It's real exciting, and it makes the future real exciting to be around those guys."
To underscore his point, the head man recalled something he realized while attending chapel services last Sunday.
"We were sitting in church, and there was a whole row of them (freshmen) together," he recalled. "There was a whole pew of them that you'd just say, ‘Yep, I'd take him home and let him take care of my house for a month while I'm gone.' They're that kind of kids. And they're pretty darned talented, so that's good, too."
They're talented, all right. Berry will start at cornerback or at least serve as nickel back on passing downs. Martin is a pass-rushing whiz. Tailback Lennon Creer and wide receiver Denarius Moore – both from Tatum, Texas – may be the Vols' top big-play threats. The afore-mentioned Gerald Jones is among a half-dozen intriguing young wideout prospects. Chris Walker and Chris Donald are linebacker/defensive end types with bright futures. Defensive backs C. J. Fleming, Dennis Rogan and Anthony Anderson show flashes of eye-popping potential. Rugged Cody Pope has the versatility to start someday on either the offensive or defensive line. At this point, none of the rookies appears to be a bust.
Receivers coach Trooper Taylor said these freshmen boast an abundance of confidence, in addition to their talent and enthusiasm.
"They've got a lot of aura about ‘em, too," the Vol aide said. "They haven't backed down at all, across the board. That's what's been real impressive about them. They're mature kids. They don't let the speed of the game bother them. They don't let older guys get their reps. As a matter of fact, they were fighting for some of the older guys' reps."
So, why are these rookies so much farther along than most freshman classes?
"I think a lot of it is that they all played in good programs for the most part and they didn't come in intimidated," Taylor said. "They came in to play."
Junior linebacker Jerod Mayo said the enthusiasm of the freshmen "definitely has given the team a lift," adding: "Having guys like Ben Martin, Eric Berry and all of them come out with all of that energy and those fresh legs really makes everyone else work that much harder."
Historically, Fulmer has tended to play his veterans ahead of his freshmen. The overwhelming talent and energy level of this rookie class could change his thinking a bit this fall.
"I love seeing these freshmen coming in here, man," sophomore defensive back Marsalous Johnson said. "They're stepping up big. We have a great group of freshmen, and it puts a smile on your face when you see them come in, make big progress and make the plays they have.
"There's a lot of freshmen out there that are going to be great players."
Perhaps sooner, rather than later.