Tennessee Football: 5 Freshmen Who Must Shine in Fall Practices
In order for Tennessee to reach its first bowl game since 2010, the Volunteers need several freshmen to make major contributions this season—starting with the first fall practice in August.
The bad news is that the Vols have one of the youngest, most inexperienced rosters in the country, as noted by Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The good news is that the freshmen who enrolled between January and June of this year are some of the most talented players on the team.
The 14 early enrollees who arrived on campus in January got the benefit of participating in winter workouts and spring practices and will be ready to hit the ground running in August. They also got a taste of playing at Neyland Stadium during the 2014 Orange and White Game.
However, the bulk of the freshman class who arrived in June won't have the luxury of taking their time to adapt to college life and the speed of SEC football. Many will be asked to log significant minutes during the upcoming season, and some are already in the mix to start by Week 1.
That said, there are no guarantees in life or college football. While many players in the 2014 recruiting class arrived on campus to high hopes and expectations, a quick glance over previous SEC recruiting classes shows that star rankings don't always translate to on-the-field achievements.
Here are the five Tennessee freshmen who must prove themselves and live up to their recruiting rankings during fall practice to give the Vols a fighting chance at playing in December.
1. Jalen Hurd
After an electric junior season where he broke all kinds of Tennessee high school football records while leading Beech High School to the Class 5A state championship, Jalen Hurd seemed destined to finish out his high school career with a legendary senior season.
But after tearing his labrum during Beech's season opener against rival Station Camp High School, Hurd didn't suit up in cleats and pads again until he was participating in spring practices as a Tennessee Vol.
Although senior Marlin Lane likely locked up the starting running back position this year, Hurd needs to push him throughout fall camp. With a strong enough performance during practice, Hurd has the chance to increase his number of touches and even split carries with Lane 50-50 this season.
The Vols haven't had a one-two punch at tailback since Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown in 2009. The combination of Lane and Hurd could be enough to give the offense an extra dimension that allows offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to open up the playbook significantly compared to last season.
2. Josh Malone
Last year, Tennessee's wide receiver corps didn't have much of an identity until freshman Marquez North started living up to his potential halfway through the season.
In 2014, Josh Malone needs to make a similar impact to spread the field and create more opportunities for quarterback Justin Worley.
Malone is every bit as talented as North, and his performance in the Orange and White Game in April shows that he has the ability to be a game-changing playmaker for the offense.
After being on campus for only three months, Malone hauled in six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns against the Orange team's defense, as reported by the Associated Press (via USA Today).
Sure, it was only a scrimmage, but Malone's speed and catching ability proved that if he continues to excel during fall camp, he has the talent to push for the starting wide receiver position opposite North in 2014.
3. Todd Kelly Jr.
One of the biggest question marks for the Tennessee defense in recent years is the safety position.
Enter Todd Kelly Jr.
Alongside sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton, redshirt junior safety Brian Randolph was the only consistent playmaker in the Tennessee defensive backfield last year.
In game after game during the 2013 season, it was clear that the Vols secondary lacked speed and took poor angles, resulting in missed tackles and big plays for the opposition.
Kelly has the speed and instincts to limit those mistakes and big chunks of yardage, but he has yet to participate in a single practice with his teammates.
Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez and defensive coordinator John Jancek need Kelly to hit the ground running during fall camp—not only to crack the depth chart, but to possibly supplant junior LaDarrell McNeil as the starter at the free safety position.
4. Coleman Thomas
With all five positions on the Tennessee offensive line up for grabs, freshman Coleman Thomas has a good chance at following in the footsteps of Ja'Wuan James as a four-year starter at right tackle for the Vols.
But despite his size (6'6", 311 lbs) and talent, Thomas faces some stiff competition from veteran players on the Vols roster. Dylan Wiesman, Austin Sanders, Marques Pair and Kyler Kerbyson are all interchangeable throughout the offensive line, and any of those players could earn the nod at right tackle over Thomas.
After a productive spring practice period, Thomas needs to follow up on his success with an outstanding fall camp to firmly establish himself as one of the Vols' most promising young offensive linemen.
Even if he doesn't earn a starting position right away, there's little doubt that Thomas will be a major factor on the offensive line for the foreseeable future at Tennessee.
5. Aaron Medley
Despite the accolades Aaron Medley received as one of the country's top high school kickers, he has yet to prove he can be a reliable weapon for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones.
Part of that is because Medley just arrived on campus in June, and part of it is because no coach ever truly knows what he has in a kicker until he has experienced the pressure of a live game situation.
While Jones was highly successful at getting the most out of kicker Michael Palardy during his senior season, no two kickers are alike.
With a brutal schedule and a razor-thin margin of error during the 2014 season, the Vols need the kicker position to be a strength during close games—not a question mark.
That's why Medley needs to make the most of fall camp and leave no doubt in the minds of Jones and special teams coach Mark Elder that he's the right man for the job.