UT rookies finding roles

If you don't think Tennessee's 2007 football season is a full-blown soap opera, consider this:

The Vols' first-year players spent the season's opening weeks as The Young And The Restless, squirming on the bench while veterans got all of the playing time.

When the Big Orange dropped two of its first three games, however, many fans' Passions turned ugly and head coach Phillip Fulmer found himself in Another World of hurt. Using Florida's Urban Meyer as a Guiding Light, Fulmer began blending talented young players into his lineup, apparently reasoning that, "I've only got One Life To Live, so I might as well use All My Children."

As The World Turns and Saturday's 3:30 kickoff against Georgia approaches, Fulmer promises to give still more rookies significant roles in this daytime drama.

Brent Vinson will start at cornerback, joining fellow freshman Eric Berry in the first-team secondary. Dennis Rogan, yet another freshman, will see action on special teams and perhaps as a backup at safety.

Ben Martin and Chris Walker are due playing time at end, and fellow freshman Savion Frazier is pushing for some meaningful snaps at linebacker. Martin missed most of September with a knee injury but has the pass-rush skills to be a valuable Vol.

"He's getting closer," defensive coordinator John Chavis said this week. "We certainly feel like he can help us. We've used him some already, and as the season goes on he's going to play more and more. He's not ready to go out and play 30 or 40 snaps but he's in a position where he can give us some pass rush."

Meanwhile, junior college transfers DeAngelo Willingham (cornerback) and Nevin McKenzie (weakside linebacker) will continue to see significant playing time.

"I'm excited about what Nevin McKenzie is doing," Fulmer said. "I'm really encouraged by where he is. He's not 100 percent with all of his assignments and adjustments and those kinds of things, but he is getting really close. He is one of those guys that can run you down."

On offense, freshman receiver Gerald Jones is finally ready to contribute after battling a hamstring pull throughout most of September.

"He's back and ready to go," Fulmer said. "Whether it be a little on offense as we go along or on special teams, he will definitely play."

The head man recently noted that freshman Denarius Moore and juco transfer Kenny O'Neal are two more wideouts who probably deserve more playing time than they're getting.

First-year tailback Lennon Creer is playing more and more each week, even though the Vols are well stocked at his position. Fellow freshman Kevin Cooper is the chief backup to senior Chris Brown at H-Back.

In addition to the freshmen mentioned above, Tennessee has several redshirt freshmen playing key roles. Daniel Lincoln is the No. 1 place-kicker. Chad Cunningham is the kickoff man and backup punter. Redshirt freshmen filling backup roles include Luke Stocker at tight end, Ramone Johnson at left offensive tackle, LaMarcus Thompson and Nick Reveiz at linebacker.

"This is as many freshmen and redshirt freshmen as we've played in a long time," Fulmer said. "I'm encouraged by the continued progress. Another plus that came out of the open date was those guys getting some great practice work, while we held out some of the older guys to get well."

Although the head man is utilizing more freshmen than usual this fall, he insists he would've played even more rookies if the September schedule hadn't been so challenging. Asked if it's frustrating to see talented first-year players on the bench, the Vol coach nodded.

"Yes, it is," he said. "You want 'em out there but you don't want to give up plays because of mistakes. Our schedule, particularly this year, doesn't lend itself to getting guys in the game as fast as you'd want to."

But that's life in The City ... right?


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