KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones likes to compare guiding a young football team to raising children and watching them mature.
The Volunteers are about to take their first steps.
Tennessee plans to start three freshmen and one junior-college transfer in Sunday’s season opener against Utah State. Ten more freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and three junior-college transfers are in second-team roles. Tennessee’s entire offensive and defensive two-deep includes just six seniors, matching Temple for the fewest of any Football Bowl Subdivision program.
“First games are the games of the unknown,” Jones said, “and we probably have more unknowns than anyone else in the country.”
Likely freshman starters include defensive end Derek Barnett, offensive guard Jashon Robertson and tight end Ethan Wolf. Junior-college transfer Von Pearson is listed as a starting receiver. Tennessee actually has five freshmen atop its depth chart if you include kicker Aaron Medley and kick returner Evan Berry, who are mentioned as co-starters at their respective positions.
Never before has a Tennessee true freshman tight end or defensive lineman started a season opener. Robertson, who opened training camp on the defensive line before moving to offense, would become Tennessee’s fourth true freshman offensive lineman to start an opener.
Freshmen in second-team roles include linebacker Dillon Bates, tight end Daniel Helm, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, running back Jalen Hurd, linebacker Colton Jumper, strong safety Todd Kelly Jr., receiver Josh Malone, defensive tackle Dimarya Mixon, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and offensive tackle Coleman Thomas. The second team also features three junior-college transfers (offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, linebacker Chris Weatherd and nose tackle Owen Williams) and two redshirt freshmen (offensive guards Austin Sanders and Brett Kendrick).
“It is exciting because I think it’s the future of Tennessee football,” Jones said. “This football team is going to be intact for many years to come. Along with that you suffer growing pains, but also they’re very talented.”
By contrast, Utah State has six potential senior starters on offense and five more on defense as well as a senior kicker and punter.
The makeup of Tennessee’s depth chart isn’t a surprise, but it does create plenty of uncertainty. Not even the newcomers themselves know how they’ll respond in front of a likely sellout crowd. Barnett acknowledged last week that he’d probably be nervous.
“I’m nervous before every game,” Barnett said. “High school games, I’d get nervous. There are just so many people. I’m not used to (playing in front of) all these people. But it will be a good experience.”
The Vols took steps to prepare their newcomers. Tennessee conducted an open practice at Neyland Stadium this month that drew an announced attendance of 40,000. Jones noted afterward that many of his players had never performed in front of a crowd that large.
Jones still doesn’t know how well they’ll adapt to game situations. He notes that season openers often provide opportunities for teams to try new things that an opponent hadn’t seen from them on tape. An experienced team can adjust to that type of scenario. Jones is hoping his freshmen also are able to handle it.
“How are these individuals really going to react when the scoreboard’s on and it’s for real?” Jones asked. “There are no do-overs. There are no reset buttons.”
NOTES: Less than 2,000 tickets remained for the Utah State game as of early Tuesday afternoon. … Medley and George Bullock continue to compete for Tennessee’s kicking job. Jones said it could end up being a game-time decision. … Cameron Sutton, the Vols’ top cornerback, also will open the season as Tennessee’s main punt returner. Sutton didn’t return any punts last season. … Jones said reserve quarterback Joshua Dobbs, wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard and Berry all could get opportunities to simulate Utah State star quarterback Chuckie Keeton in practice this week.