Tennessee Football: Freshmen Progress Reports Through 7 Games
For the first time in Derek Dooley's three seasons, Tennessee hasn't had to rely on freshmen to play a significant role. Dooley finally has built up enough talent that the only freshmen that play are those that are good enough.
With that said, there are several freshman that have seen significant playing time over the first seven games of the season.
While the final grade from the most recent recruiting class won't be complete until after the careers of the players are completely over, let's take a look at the contributions they have made up to this point.
Alton "Pig" Howard
Howard missed the first two games of the season because of an injury suffered during camp. His role has gradually grown since he returned and he has provided a different wrinkle for the Vols' offense.
Through the five games he has played, the freshman has 36 yards on eight carries and five receptions for 25 yards. It hasn't been quite the impact that most fans were hoping he would make, but he shows signs that indicate he will be a weapon for the Vols in the years to come.
With the potential of receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson leaving after this season for the NFL, Tennessee may be in desperate need of playmakers on offense. Howard has the ability to play a huge role.
The freshman safety was thrust into a starting role a couple weeks back because of strong play on his part and struggles by Brent Brewer. While the results haven't been perfect, it's clear McNeil has tons of talent.
The University of Tennessee has had some very good safeties during its history and McNeil is getting an opportunity to show off early in his career.
There's one thing that is very clear about the safety and that is he is not afraid of contact. McNeil packs a punch when he makes a hit.
He still has plenty to work on as expected, but it looks like he will be a big part of the back end of the Tennessee defense for several years.
Watson hasn't seen much playing time up to this point, but aside from Howard and McNeil he's made more contributions than any other freshman.
The diminutive running back has 17 carries and has totaled 46 yards. He scored his first career touchdown against Georgia State and spelled Devrin Young against Mississippi State with two Tennessee running backs on the shelf.
Tennessee's running game has been much improved this season, so the opportunities have been few and far between for the freshman. As his career progresses, it will be worth watching whether his body can handle the punishment of the SEC.
King was listed as an athlete coming out of high school, and the assumption was that he would find a home on the defensive side of the ball. However, it surprised everyone when he was moved to the offensive side in camp and was working in wildcat formations.
Tennessee has shown several variations of the wildcat with King, A.J. Johnson and Howard. The package with King has been used the least out of the three. King has two carries on the season, one for 18 yards and one for no gain.
King's role could drastically grow if fullback Ben Bartholomew were to go down with an injury, but unless that happens, it's likely he will still be a backup option.
King does offer interesting options for the future though. With offenses trying to be as multifaceted as possible, it's never a bad thing to have extra options.
The rest of the Tennessee freshmen class hasn't done much to contribute to the 2012 season. Whether it is because of injury, aren't needed or just aren't ready yet, they haven't seen the field very much.
However, there is still plenty of talent in this group and I fully expect many of them will have huge roles as early as next season. Two years from now, some of the players who aren't playing right now will be the ones that everyone is talking about.
It's nice for the Volunteers once again not to have to count on freshman to play a significant role. Let's leave this class as a work in progress.