Radical rookies

Lennon Creer returned Arkansas's opening kickoff 32 yards last Saturday, setting up Tennessee's first touchdown.

Dennis Rogan returned Arkansas's second kickoff 78 yards, setting up a field goal that gave the Vols a 10-3 lead. He later returned a punt 15 yards to midfield, setting up Tennessee's second TD drive. Oh, yeah ... he also recorded 3 tackles as a reserve cornerback.

Eric Berry intercepted two passes, returning one 37 yards and the other 61. In addition, he recorded 4 solo tackles and 2 assists as the starting strong safety.

What makes these guys special is the fact all three are freshmen who were playing high school football this time last year. What makes them even more special is the fact that head coach coach Phillip Fulmer is not predisposed to playing freshmen.

"When you see 'em out here as freshmen at Tennessee, you can bet they earned that stripe," receivers coach Trooper Taylor says. "It wasn't something that was just given to them."

Berry has started every game in the Vol secondary. Creer has been impressive as a return specialist and in occasional relief stints at tailback, averaging a team-best 6.3 yards per carry. Rogan has emerged as the team's third-best cornerback and a standout in the return game.

Berry, named SEC Freshman of the Week for his play against Arkansas, leads the NCAA with 207 interception-return yards – a figure which broke UT's single-season record. Fulmer, not given to lavish praise, almost gushes when he discusses the radical rookie.

"His attitude, his work ethic, his intelligence – combined with his speed and athletic ability and willingness to work – has made him one of the up-and-coming premier defensive backs in the Southeastern Conference," the head man says. "Freshman or not, I think he's one of the best ones in the league."

Berry's 4.4 speed, his strength and his elusiveness will enable him to double as a part-time offensive player in years to come. For now, though, Fulmer wants him focusing strictly on strong safety.

"He could play corner," the head man concedes. "He could play receiver. He could play running back. In the right package he could play quarterback. He's a heck of an athlete."

Taylor is another card-carrying member of the Eric Berry fan club.

"You watch Eric and you could see from Day 1 that he wasn't a typical freshman," Taylor says. "Then you see how far Rogan has some. We tested him with doing the punt returns and kickoff returns. And Lennon Creer ... you could just go on and on."

All told, nine true freshmen are making significant contributions for the Vols this fall. Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones rank among the top six receivers. Moore also has returned some kicks and Jones also has run some plays as a direct-snap tailback. Ben Martin and Chris Walker appear to be future stars at defensive end. Savion Frazier is a special-teams whiz who is playing more and more as a backup linebacker. Brent Vinson has been starting at cornerback since Game 5.

"Our young players in general have added a real spark to our football team – Eric Berry from the beginning of the season and several others during the course of the season," Fulmer notes. "There's always been one or two (key freshmen) – a Michael Munoz, a running back, a receiver or somebody – but not so many. It's really exciting to have this many talented guys that are youthful."

The obvious question: What has enabled these nine rookies to beat the odds and become major contributors in Year 1?

"Those guys have learned how to practice," Taylor explains. "That's the biggest transition for most freshmen. They never had to go through a three-hour practice. They've been through an hour and a half, then out of the building and ready to go. To come into practices as intense as ours are, and have to maintain that focus for three hours, is tough on young guys."

Coming from top-notch high school programs has helped several of the rookies prepare for big-time college ball, as well.

"A lot of them have come from great high school programs that have won championships and know how to practice," Fulmer says. "The college environment and the speed of the game hasn't intimidated them."

In addition, several members of this year's freshman class exhibit unusually high levels of intelligence and maturity.

"There's still a learning curve but it's been a fun group to be around," Fulmer says. "They're a very, very tight group and very good students. They're responsible young people for the most part (although) there's always a couple you've got to keep your thumb on."

One of Tennessee's most impressive freshmen isn't even playing this season. That would be quarterback B. J. Coleman of Chattanooga. Even though he is redshirting, he is showing the poise, dedication and assertiveness to be a fine leader someday – on and off the field.

"This group has done a good job, and I think B.J., the quarterback in that group, has done a great job of leadership," Taylor says. "There's a bunch of good leaders in this freshman class, and I think it's going to show up in the next couple of years."


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