Tennessee will debut 14 scholarship players when spring football practice starts Tuesday, tied for the most early enrollees in recent program history.
They believe the head-start will help them make an immediate impact in the 2022 season. About half of them are right, at least judging from past results.
In the past 10 years, the Vols have had 79 new players enroll in January rather than wait until summer. And 41 of them, or 52%, made a notable impact in their first season.
Most of them were talented freshmen who acclimated quickly. A few were junior-college transfers who panned out. And a couple of Division I transfers recently stood out.
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Here is an analysis of UT’s best early enrollees since 2012 and how their first-season successes could repeat in this large group of recent arrivals.
Could Justin Williams be like Jalen Hurd?
In 2014, freshman Jalen Hurd enrolled early as a four-star running back on a team that needed more bulk in the backfield. Marlin Lane returned after rushing for 534 yards while sharing time with Rajion Neal the season before.
Hurd made an immediate impact, rushing for 899 yards and scoring seven TDs.
Similarly, Jabari Small returns after rushing for 796 yards while sharing time with Tiyon Evans in 2021. Jaylen Wright (409 yards) is also in the mix. Another backfield option may be needed, especially in short-yardage situations.
Four-star running back Justin Williams (6-foot, 205 pounds) isn’t as bulky as Hurd (6-3, 230), but he has a similar skillset as a big, athletic ball-carrier. Small will be the starter, but he needs to be part of a duo or trio. Williams will get a chance for a spot in that rotation.
Can junior college cornerback finally pan out?
In terms of early enrollees, UT has had as many hits and misses — arguably, five each — among junior college transfers in the past 10 years. Wide receiver Von Pearson (2014), running back Alvin Kamara (2015) and defensive end Byron Young (2021) were among the best.
Desmond Williams is the only new juco transfer in this spring practice. He was the No. 2 ranked juco cornerback in the 2022 class by 247Sports Composite.
Williams will get every opportunity to make an impact in a defensive secondary that carries question marks after the departure of Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson. But this situation hasn’t worked well for UT in recent years.
In 2016, DJ Henderson was the No. 3 ranked juco cornerback, but he didn’t play in his first season with the Vols. In 2013, three-star juco cornerback Riyahd Jones played only two games in his first season.
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Will freshman WRs play like Jauan Jennings, Josh Malone?
Four freshman wide receivers will debut in spring, including four-star signee Kaleb Webb and three-star signees Cameron Miller, Marquarius White and Chas Nimrod. There’s a chance at least one of them makes a big contribution this season.
Cedric Tillman is back after a 1,000-yard season. Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Calloway and others are likely to factor into the rotation. But it’ll be an open competition as new wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope evaluates the unit.
The Vols should hope that one of their freshmen have a debut season like Josh Malone or Jauan Jennings.
In 2014, Malone started six games and made 23 receptions. In 2015, Jennings started six games and made 14 receptions. Neither were close to a No. 1 receiver as a freshman, but they contributed immediately and teased to their future impact.
Is there a Trey Smith among these new offensive linemen?
Most freshman offensive linemen need a year or two to develop, so making an immediate impact is rare. Five-star signees Trey Smith and Wanya Morris were unique exceptions.
In 2017, Smith started all 12 games at guard or tackle and earned All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors. In 2019, Morris earned the same accolades after starting 12 games at left tackle.
Addison Nichols, a four-star signee, was the top-rated player in UT’s 2022 class. He’s a 6-5, 315-pounder who plays a physical style, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can compete in spring practice and contribute as a freshman.
UT returns four starters on the offensive line. Florida transfer Gerald Mincey will get a shot at the starting right tackle. But Nichols could crack the two-deep rotation, especially since depth is needed at every position.
If Nichols makes an impact, don’t expect a freshman season like Smith or Morris. Better comparisons might be Coleman Thomas (2014), Jack Jones (2015), Chance Hall (2015), Riley Locklear (2017), Jerome Carvin (2018) or Cooper Mays (2020).
They each contributed immediately and started a few games because of injuries along the line during their freshman season.
Will spring provide head-start among promising defensive linemen?
In 2012, former coach Derek Dooley signed six freshman defensive linemen. The group was led by four-star signees Omari Phillips and Danny O’Brien. But they didn’t get on the field until preseason practice in August and played only one game as freshmen.
Three-star signee Darrington Sentimore enrolled early and benefitted from the head-start. He played all 12 games with nine starts, made 18 tackles and led the team with four sacks.
In the 2022 class, there are five defensive linemen, led by four-star signees Tire West, James Pearce and Joshua Josephs.
West enrolled early, and three-star defensive lineman Jordan Phillips arrived so early that he participated in practices before the Music City Bowl. Pearce and Josephs won’t arrive until summer, so time will tell if the head-start matters.
Butch Jones relied on newcomers. Should Josh Heupel want that?
Former coach Butch Jones transformed the roster in 2014, his second season, with an influx of 14 early enrollees. They were the foundation of three straight bowl seasons.
Josh Heupel has a similar opportunity in his second season with 14 early enrollees, including 12 freshmen, one juco transfer and one Division I transfer on scholarship.
Ten of Jones’ 14 early enrollees either started or contributed in a notable way in their first season. Hurd, Malone, Pearson, Thomas, tight end Ethan Wolf, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and junior-college transfer defensive lineman Owen Williams were the biggest immediate hits.
But this UT team has fewer holes than Jones’ 2014 squad. Heupel should hope for an immediate impact from a few newcomers but not too many. A healthy program should be able to win with veterans and develop young players.
Tennessee’s best early enrollments in each of past 10 years
Year: Player – Impact in first season
2012: DL Darrington Sentimore – Started 9 games, led team in sacks (4).
2013: LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin — Led in special teams tackles (11), blocked point.
2014: RB Jalen Hurd — 1,120 all-purpose yards, 7 TDs.
2015: RB Alvin Kamara — JuCo transfer had 1,089 all-purpose yards, 11 TDs
2016: CB Marquill Osborne – Led in special teams tackles (6), 2 TFLs.
2017: OL Trey Smith – 12 starts, All-SEC, Freshman All-American.
2018: CB Alontae Taylor – 8 starts, 40 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, blocked kick.
2019: OL Wanya Morris – 12 starts at left tackle, SEC All-Freshman.
2020: QB Harrison Bailey – 3 starts, 578 passing yards, 4 TDs.
2021: QB Hendon Hooker — D1 transfer had one of best passing seasons in UT history.
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.