Why 2014 Spring Game Is SEC Coming-out Party for Butch Jones' Tennessee Team

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Why 2014 Spring Game Is SEC Coming-out Party for Butch Jones' Tennessee Team
Wade Payne

Their names are yet unknown across the landscape of the SEC, where legends of players grow larger than the stadiums, and legacies are etched in rugged rivalries.

Few fans know the names of head coach Butch Jones' 2014 Tennessee Volunteers, but for the first time in years, you should probably learn them.

There is talent on Rocky Top again, and Saturday's Orange and White Game will be an on-stage dress rehearsal for numerous newcomers with the potential to become household names.

Which UT newcomer will take his first step to stardom this Saturday?

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In a league normally unkind to youngsters, the Vols must play them everywhere. Several other little-used players already in the program will be thrust into key roles as well.

Fans at Neyland Stadium on Saturday—and intrigued observers wanting to witness UT's deep, top-10 recruiting class in action on their television sets—will need a roster handy. Depending on who trots out with the first team, the Vols could have as many as 18 new starters.

"It's where we're at in the program," Jones told The Associated Press (via USA Today). "We can't hide it. It is what it is. But I'm encouraged by their youthfulness, their eagerness and the talent that we have and the talent we have coming in."

This group of players is different than any UT has recruited in nearly a decade.

Phillip Fulmer got complacent his past few years in Knoxville, Tenn., and his recruiting suffered because of it.

Even though Lane Kiffin's one full class was highly regarded, it was loaded with paper prospects—recruits lauded by services but not as heavily recruited by some of the nation's top programs for various red flags.

That was painfully evident in retrospect, as 17 of UT's 22 commitments from the 2009 class failed to complete their eligibility in orange.

Derek Dooley wasn't an awful recruiter, but he neglected high school prospects close to home and performed program-crippling numbers gaffes such as failing to sign a single offensive lineman in the 2012 class.

Not only did Jones' first full class go a long way in meeting UT's massive needs, but the Vols also signed depth at virtually every position that lacked it.

At most established programs across the country, spring is a time to mix-and-match players, make position changes and develop depth.

For Jones, this 15-practice session was about upgrading talent and finding starters. Fourteen newcomers arrived midterm as part of a gigantic 32-player recruiting class. At least 11 of them are expected to play immediately, and 10 of those are in the mix to start.

Mark Humphrey

Players expected to be the future of the Vols will be on display for their first spring game, and that will be the vast majority of Jones' team.

Tennessee has rebuilt both sides of the ball from the ground up.

Offensively, running back Jalen Hurd, quarterback Riley Ferguson, receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, and offensive linemen Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair will see their first live action in front of an audience.

Defensive linemen Owen Williams and Dimarya Mixon, linebacker Jakob Johnson and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley also burst onto the college scene this spring, and they will try to show everybody why coaches are so excited.

Because of all the new players, Jones said it is "critical," per WDEF News, that fans pack the stadium for the spring game to give the youngsters a true preview of what's to come this fall.

A season ago, the Vols surprised the SEC with an upset of No. 11 South Carolina that sent shock waves across the league. But their highest high was followed with a dire dose of reality.

Alabama, Auburn and Missouri all exposed Tennessee for what it was: a team that may have been senior-laden but too far short on talent to compete consistently in the SEC.

When Vanderbilt knocked the Vols out of a bowl game, it soured a season that had once held hope.

That old guard has been razed. After all the "brick by brick" propaganda Jones has preached throughout his tenure, this spring game will be the first glimpse the college football world gets at the first fruits of his rebuilding efforts.

If the '14 recruiting class is truly the start of the turnaround as the prospects have preached, Saturday will be the first chance for everybody to see its origins.

Jones gave ESPN.com's Chris Low a little preview of what to expect:

We only have 13 seniors in the program. We'll be much more talented, but very youthful. It's kind of invigorating, though, because this football team has been willing and they've been eager. We've just got to teach them.

We're still not where we need to be to compete at a high level in this conference, but we have taken great steps in moving forward by increasing our team speed and overall athleticism, and the exciting thing is that there are 18 more newcomers arriving in June.

For all the new Vols, this Saturday is a chance to show everybody for the first time that they have the talent to put Tennessee football back on the map.

Unripe Orange (UT's 14 newcomers to watch)
Name Position Rankings Chances to start
Dontavius Blair LT 4-star Excellent
Daniel Helm TE 4-star Good
Jalen Hurd RB 4-star Excellent
Neiko Creamer OLB 3-star Poor
Josh Malone WR 4-star Good
Von Pearson WR 4-star Excellent
Ethan Wolf TE 3-star Excellent
Dimarya Mixon DT 3-star Good
Owen Williams DT 3-star Excellent
Jakob Johnson DE/OLB 3-star Poor
Emmanuel Moseley CB 3-star Excellent
Ray Raulerson OG/C 3-star Poor
D'Andre Payne CB 4-star Poor
Coleman Thomas RT 3-star Excellent

247Sports Composite

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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