Tennessee Football: Freshmen Who Outperformed Their Rankings in 2014

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2014

Tennessee Football: Freshmen Who Outperformed Their Rankings in 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When your recruiting class is ranked seventh nationally as Tennessee's was during the 2014 recruiting cycle, you're bound to have your fair share of superlatives.

    Collectively, that class of freshmen has the potential and ability to someday be looked upon as the group that put the Volunteers back on the college football map, depending on how the rest of their careers go. From that class, 24 first-year players played, and at least 11 started.

    That's crazy production from a team that simply had to have it, given all the roster deficiencies in 2014. The Vols played more true freshmen than any other team in the country.

    Without the group of youngsters, there's no way the Vols would be bowling. A closer look at the schedule still makes it difficult to believe.

    But now that this team bridged the gap, there are no excuses moving forward. Head coach Butch Jones' program looks like it's well on its way to being rebuilt, and next year's team will be expected by many to break through another level.

    Much of the reason for that is because of the large, impressive '14 class.

    Some players such as Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. lived up to their rankings. Most of the others seem adequately ranked, as we look back on their final numbers from the 247Sports composite rankings.

    But some freshmen outperformed the experts' rankings. Let's take a look at the players from the 2014 class who did better than most expected.

Ethan Wolf, Tight End

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Yes, Ethan Wolf's production tailed off during the final two games as he was shut out from catching a pass, but his importance cannot be measured in statistics.

    With Tennessee's offensive line struggling to block consistently all season, the 6'5", 240-pound tight end was an integral part of trying to keep the Vols quarterbacks off the ground. Though it didn't always work, it would have been a lot uglier without Wolf lining up on the end.

    According to the 247Sports composite rankings, Wolf was the nation's 14th-ranked tight end in the 2014 class and a 3-star prospect. He had offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan State, Louisville and others.

    Wolf wound up with more catches (21) than anybody ranked ahead of him. He also had 203 receiving yards, and he played out of necessity through numerous injuries. He did miss a couple of games with a high ankle sprain.

    When he was out against Oklahoma, UT struggled in not only throwing the ball to the tight ends but in protecting then-quarterback Justin Worley.

    "I'll go back and watch the video again, but anytime Ethan Wolf doesn't play, it hurts you just because he's a talented football player," Jones told the Knoxville News-Sentinel's David Cobb following the loss to the Sooners.

    Wolf has a bright future, and he got off to an excellent start this year.

Aaron Medley, Kicker

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    RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    It has been years since Tennessee signed an immediate-impact kicker, but that's just what the Vols did in the 2014 class with Lewisburg, Tennessee, native Aaron Medley.

    The 6'2", 181-pound kicker wasn't that highly regarded by recruiting services despite being rated the nation's No. 1 kicker in the class of 2014 by the prestigious Kohl's kicking and punting camp.

    As a matter of fact, he was the lowest-rated signee on UT's list, according to 247Sports. While the composite had him as a 3-star player and the fourth-ranked kicker, he was just the 10th-rated kicker on 247Sports.

    As it turns out, Kohl's was right.

    Medley earned the nickname "Auto-Medley" because of his prowess inside of 40 yards. He finished the season 19-of-25 on field goals, and that included 18-of-19 inside of 40. He made all but one of his extra points and handled most of the kickoff duties as well.

    He appears destined to be a four-year starter for the Vols. While kickers aren't normally highly rated, Medley deserved to be among the handful who were. He kicks it long, high and true.

    Distance kicking is normally the last thing to work itself out. Once he does that, he has a strong enough leg to kick at the next level.

Emmanuel Moseley, Cornerback

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    Way back in the summer of 2013, a skinny speedster from Greensboro, North Carolina, camped at Tennessee in front of defensive backs coach Willie Martinez and crew.

    Martinez loved him, and though Emmanuel Moseley was never truly appreciated by the recruiting services, the Vols offered and received a commitment from the then-2-star prospect back in September of last year.

    At 6'0", 160 pounds, he was raw but possessed skills that UT believed it could mold into a strong cornerback.

    The only other major-conference program who wound up offering Moseley besides UT was N.C. State, and the talented defensive back stuck with UT. He came in at mid-term and immediately swiped a starting cornerback spot away from Malik Foreman.

    Though Michael Williams would start the first game of the season, Moseleywho is now listed at 178 poundsreclaimed the starting job and did a good job with it. He finished the season with 18 tackles, two tackles for a loss and six pass deflections.

    Moseley wound up being a 3-star player, but given how quickly he adjusted and seized an everyday role in what turned out to be a solid Tennessee secondary, he's better than the nation's 59th-rated cornerback.

    He has elite speed, really good footwork and developing ball skills. After an entire season in the weight room, he's going to have an exciting career in Knoxville.

Jashon Robertson, Offensive Guard

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Spots were quickly filling up in Tennessee's recruiting class when Vanderbilt coach James Franklin bolted Nashville for Penn State.

    Though there weren't a lot of players worth poaching in the group, the Vols signed a pair of defensive tackle prospects who were Commodore commitments in Michael Sawyers and Jashon Robertson.

    A week into camp, Robertson moved to offensive guard, and the rest is history.

    The 6'3", 304-pound freshman from Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy was a natural at guard. With his brute strength from his days as a high school wrestler, he immediately seized a starting spot.

    Coach Butch Jones preached all offseason that the best players would play, and it didn't take long for the coaching staff to realize Robertson was one of them, regardless of how lauded he was coming out of high school.

    Though he came into UT as the nation's 30th-ranked guard, he became arguably UT's most consistent offensive lineman during his first season. He possesses the ability to be an NFL player. He started all 12 games, and he was a staple despite playing for a struggling line.

    For his efforts, he was named a Freshman All-American by ESPN.com.

    That's an impressive season for a player who didn't even know if he'd have a spot on the team before signing scholarship papers. Not only did he play, he thrived.

Derek Barnett, Defensive End

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    It's not that Derek Barnett wasn't ranked high; he just wasn't ranked high enough.

    The former Brentwood Academy standout was a 4-star player who was the country's 13th-ranked strong-side defensive end, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Lots of teams wanted the 6'3", 267-pound lineman, and UT had to fight off Missouri and Ole Miss to sign him.

    It just turns out Barnett was one of the (if not the) best freshmen in the country in 2014.

    As a havoc-wreaking starting defensive end, Barnett tied for fifth nationally with 20.5 tackles for a loss (with a bowl game left to play). That number was just a half-tackle behind Shane Ray for the conference lead.

    Only Missouri's Shane Ray, Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and teammate Curt Maggitt had more sacks in the conference than Barnett's 10. Not only that, but Barnett was fourth on the Vols in tackles with an eye-popping 69, a crazy number for a defensive lineman.

    He had a special season that was one of the best of any freshman defensive lineman in the history of the SEC.

    When 247Sports' Barton Simmons (subscription required) re-ranked the 2014 class, he had Barnett fourth, which would comfortably make him a 5-star. Simmons wrote, "We knew Barnett was good coming out of high school. We didn't know he was this good. Barnett doesn't have the measurables of a guy like Garrett at only 6-3, but he is extremely athletic, and his motor is what really sets him apart."

    Truth be told, that ranking is still too low. Garrett is ranked second on Simmons' list, but he earned most of his sacks against second-rate competition. Every one of Barnett's came against SEC foes.

    He's an unbelievable talent, and he'll only get better.

    All stats gathered from CFBStats.com or UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from the 247Sports composite rankings, unless otherwise noted.

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.