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VOL. 39 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Freshmen to again play key roles for Vols

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Quarterback Quinten Dormady is currently second on the depth chart behind Joshua Dobbs.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Despite doing so in 2014, Tennessee football coach Butch Jones doesn’t want to make a habit of placing freshmen in prominent roles.

You don’t win SEC titles with freshmen.

UT went 7-6 last season, 3-5 in the SEC, and won the TaxSlayer Bowl while setting a school record by playing 21 true freshmen in the season-opener.

Look for more freshmen to be on the field in 2015 alongside those from 2014.

“For us as a football team, still 64 percent of our football team is comprised of players that have been in one year or less in our football program,” Jones says. “That still puts us as one of the youngest teams in all of college football.”

Jones has had three recruiting classes at UT, and the last two were ranked among the top 10 nationally and as high as fifth.

However, attrition has taken its toll with 18 players from the last three signing classes either having been dismissed or transferred. The most recent was sophomore tight end A.J. Branisel’s departure from the team on Aug. 10.

Last year, Tennessee played 23 true freshmen, more than any FBS team in the nation. The trend started early when the Vols played a school-record 21 true freshmen in the season opening win against Utah State.

It continued throughout the season. The Vols started at least three true freshmen every game, and set a school record when seven freshmen started the Nov. 22 loss against Missouri.

The four true starters on defense were also a school record: defensive end Derek Barnett, middle linebacker Jakob Johnson, strong safety Todd Kelly Jr., and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. The three offensive starters were guard Jashon Robertson, tight end Ethan Wolf, and running back Jalen Hurd.

Barnett, a four-star recruit out of Brentwood Academy, was a freshman All-American. Hurd, a four- and five-star recruit from Beech High in Hendersonville, posted the third-best rushing season (899 yards) for a UT freshman behind James Stewart (908 in 1991) and Jamal Lewis (1,364 in 1997).

Don’t be surprised if a couple of UT’s freshmen have seasons like Barnett and Hurd in 2015.

Lindy’s Sports preseason magazine ranks its top five schools in recruiting by position for the 2015 classes, and UT is ranked in three of the nine positions.

UT’s defensive line class of six players is rated No. 1 ahead of Clemson, Georgia, Alabama, and USC. Of those six, Kahlil McKenzie of Clayton Valley Charter School in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Shy Tuttle of North Davidson High in Midway, N.C., have the best chance to see immediate action.

The Vols’ quarterback class of three is ranked No. 2 behind Florida State and ahead of Baylor, UCLA, and USC. It’s actually down to a class of two now with Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High moving to wide receiver for the start of fall camp.

Tennessee’s offensive line class of six is No. 4 behind UCLA, LSU, and Alabama, and ahead of Ohio State. Of those six, Drew Richmond of Memphis University School and Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High could work into the rotation early.

Those newcomers will help units in need of depth.

Junior Joshua Dobbs is the No. 1 quarterback, but the Vols’ backup will be a true freshman with Nathan Peterman’s decision to transfer and Justin Worley finishing his eligibility in 2014.

UT’s front lines were in dire need of player infusion. Last year, Tennessee was the only team in the nation that didn’t return a full-time starter on the offensive and defensive lines from the 2013 team.

Here are some freshmen from the 2015 class who should see early action.

OFFENSE

Quinten Dormady, quarterback, 6-4, 213 pounds, Boerne (Texas) High

Another freshman quarterback, Sheriron Jones, is third on the depth chart.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

UT fans hope they don’t see the backup quarterback unless it’s for mop-up duties, but if Dobbs gets hurt, Dormady will probably move to No. 1 on the depth chart.

Dormady, a four-star recruit as a pro-style quarterback, was a January enrollee and has an advantage of having winter workouts and spring practices under his belt. He put up staggering numbers in high school while playing for his father, Boerne coach Mike Dormady.

“Quinten Dormandy has done an outstanding job of coming in here, of just having the spring only, and really performing at a high level (in camp),” says Mike DeBord, UT offensive coordinator.

Sheriron Jones, quarterback, 6-2, 182 pounds, Rancho Verde High, Perris, Calif.

A consensus four-star dual-threat quarterback, Jones has spent the summer on campus, but might have a tough time passing Dormady on the depth chart during camp. Again, if Dobbs is hurt, Jones moves to No. 2

Dobbs likes what he’s seen from Jones.

“He came in from Day One and was asking us to go watch some film, (like) ‘Teach me the offense, basically,’ ” says Dobbs. “So that was great to see from a kid coming in from Cali. He’s a long way from home. He came in and was ready to just come right into football and start working.”

Jauan Jennings, wide receiver/quarterback, 6-4, 202 pounds, Blackman High, Murfreesboro

Jauan Jennings, a four-star quarterback last season from Murfreesboro Oakland, has already made the switch to wide receiver.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Jennings, also a January enrollee with Dormady, spent the spring at quarterback. His move to receiver could be brilliant.

He’s got great size, speed, and athleticism, which he put on display at Blackman High while also playing basketball and running track. He came to UT as a four-star recruit as a quarterback, athlete, and safety.

UT coaches wanted to get Jennings on the field as quickly as possible, and Jennings embraced the move.

“I thought he would adapt, and he’s done a great job, he really has,” says DeBord. “Of course, when you’re the quarterback, you’re supposed to know what the receivers are doing, but yet, you don’t know all their techniques and things like that. He’s learning. Coach Zach Azzanni (receivers) has done an outstanding job bringing him along, and he’s excited. He’s excited to be out there playing.”

Drew Richmond, offensive tackle, 6-5, 310 pounds, MUS

The Vols’ much maligned offensive line now has Drew Richmond, rated No. 2 in the nation last year.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

One of UT’s most maligned units in 2014 was the offensive line, and it returns almost intact except for starting right tackle Jacob Gilliam, who used up his eligibility.

The Vols signed six offensive linemen in the 2015 class and started fall camp with 15 scholarship O-linemen. (Zach Stewart of Coalfield High School did not enroll at UT for personal reasons related to mother’s death in late May.)

Richmond wasn’t an early enrollee, but came to campus in the summer as a consensus four-star recruit. Rivals rated Richmond the No. 2 offensive tackle in the nation and the No. 1 overall prospect in Tennessee.

“(He’s) very athletic and a guy that really wants to learn,” says DeBord. “Again, this fast pace, this fast tempo, they’re having to make quick decisions on the run, and I don’t think there’s probably any tougher position than the offensive line to play and everything happens right in front of you. Right now he’s got great patience and he’s learning it and giving great effort.”

DEFENSE

Kahlil McKenzie, defensive tackle, 6-3, 327 pounds, Clayton Valley Charter, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Despite not playing the 2014 season after a transfer of high schools, McKenzie has the size and strength to contribute immediately. He is an intimidating figure with legs like tree trunks.

McKenzie was rated the No. 1 defensive tackle in the nation by Rivals.

Junior Danny O’Brien returns after starting 12 games last season at nose guard, but Jordan Williams, the starter at tackle all of 2014, was a senior.

While Owen Williams and Kendal Vickers return with experience at tackle, McKenzie will almost surely make his way in the defensive line rotation.

O’Brien sees it that way, at least.

“Kahlil, man, he’s a freak,” says O’Brien. “It’s great to have a guy like that in our program. He’s going to eat up double teams. He’s going to make plays. He’s going to be a great player for the University of Tennessee.”

Shy Tuttle, 6-3, 315 pounds, North Davidson High School, Midway, N.C.

Defensive lineman Shy Tuttle should find significant playing time as a part of the defensive line rotation.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tuttle has an edge over McKenzie in that he enrolled in January and went through winter conditioning and spring practices, and has only improved throughout summer and early fall.

The Vols need a minimum of five players in the defensive line rotation, and Tuttle should find himself in the mix with McKenzie.

“Shy, throughout the spring, he had his ups and downs,” says John Jancek, defensive coordinator. “He was inconsistent. He’s trying to figure it out. He’s trying to keep up with the tempo and the pace. This camp so far, I think he’s shown a much better conditioning level, certainly going through the offseason with our team. He’s a powerful kid. He’s just got to learn technique.”

Darrin Kirkland, Jr., 6-2, 235 pounds, Lawrence Central High, Indianapolis

Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. could be th starter at middle linebacker now that Jakob Johnson, the presumptive starter, has moved to tight end. Redshirt freshman Dillon Bates might also get the job.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

UT’s starting job at middle linebacker remained open one week into practice, and that could continue through fall camp with Darrin Kirkland Jr. in the mix.

Kirkland was an early enrollee, but tore a pectoral muscle while bench-pressing in January, which caused him to split time between the training room, team meetings, and sidelines while rehabbing the rest of winter and spring.

Jakob Johnson started the last two games of the regular season at middle linebacker, but was has been moved to tight end. Kenny Bynum started the bowl game and may be the frontrunner for middle linebacker along with redshirt freshman Dillon Bates, who was limited in the spring.

Kirkland, a consensus four-star linebacker, was the No. 1 prospect in Indiana by ESPN and Rivals. Watch for his name on the depth chart.

“It is totally wide open,” explains Jancek, of the middle linebacker job.

Austin Smith, linebacker, 6-3, 234 pounds, Buford (Ga.) High

Don’t let Smith’s three-star rating fool you. He’s another true freshman in the running for the middle linebacker job, perhaps the most crucial in the defense.

His 67 tackles and all-state play helped Buford go 15-0 last fall and win the Georgia State Class AAAA title.

Smith impressed UT’s coaches when he first arrived on campus in the summer, and he’s continued early in fall camp. His versatility should get him on the field.

“Right now, he’s at Mike (middle) linebacker,” says Jones. “He can play Will linebacker and he can play Sam linebacker. He may even grow into a hybrid Sam linebacker or a Leo, kind of like Curt Maggitt (defensive end/outside linebacker). But what he possesses is that he has a frame where he will continue to put on weight, he’s very explosive and he runs very well.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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