- Vanderbilt: Taking back Neyland Stadium
- Vols: Looking ahead, but not past
- Vols: The Seniors' final home game
- Coach Fulmer and players on teammate Dan Williams
Tennessee Stat Book
A few came sooner. More are arriving later.
Either way, Tennessee wouldn't be in position to nail down an SEC East title without significant contributions from its freshmen.
The 19th-ranked Vols (7-3, 4-2 SEC) take the next step Saturday when Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5 SEC) visits Neyland Stadium. The 2 p.m. kickoff will be televised on a pay-per-view basis.
Looking back over 15 years, head coach Phillip Fulmer said he's never had this many first-year players contributing.
"There's always one or two, but never this many,'' said Fulmer.
He counts 21 true and redshirt freshmen (and three junior-college transfers) chipping in to help the Vols gain and retain control of the Eastern Division.
And Tennessee isn't the exception. Florida has played 18 true freshmen and six have started for the defending national champions.
Georgia has started four true freshmen, as has South Carolina.
Ironically, this year's upwardly mobile SEC teams - Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt - have counted on less help from true freshmen than the traditional powers.
Over in the West, Auburn has played 15 true freshmen, Alabama 10 and No. 1-ranked LSU has even started a couple.
"The game has changed a bunch,'' said UT secondary coach Larry Slade. "Recruiting is the lifeblood of your program and more young guys are playing around the country.''
Especially in Slade's secondary. True freshmen Eric Berry and Brent Vinson are starting and Dennis Rogan is the only reserve at cornerback.
Rogan also has taken over as the top punt returner and joins true freshman Lennon Creer deep for kickoffs.
Creer also has a 100-yard rushing game under his belt and averages 6.3 yards per carry on 34 attempts.
Denarious Moore has caught nine passes and returned kickoffs.
After fighting through a hamstring injury, Gerald Jones has caught passes in three of UT's past four games and even run a few snaps in the "G-Gun" offensive package.
"A lot of these guys have come from great high-school programs that won championships,'' said Fulmer. "They know how to practice. The college environment hasn't intimidated them.
"There's still a learning curve but it's been a fun group to be around.''
The learning curve was accelerated for Berry - considered the nation's top defensive-back prospect - and Vinson due to the pressing need for bodies in the secondary.
Every time Berry gets his hands on the ball, he seems do something with it. He has already broken a 37-year-old school record for most yards off interception returns in a season with 207.
With at least three games to play, Berry has other records in striking range. The SEC season record for interception-return yardage is 244. The NCAA mark is 302 yards.
"His attitude and work ethic and his intelligence, combined with his speed and athletic ability ... have made him one of the up-and-coming premier defensive backs in the Southeastern Conference,'' said Fulmer.
"Freshman or not, I think he's one of the best defensive backs in the league.''
Berry also has returned a fumble 52 yards and has been in on 57 tackles.
Other true freshmen helping to a lesser degree are Savion Frazier, Ben Martin, Chris Walker and Kevin Cooper.
"Starting as a freshman in this league is a hard thing to do,'' said junior receiver Josh Briscoe, "and you've got to be a great athlete.
"They're working hard every day to get better. They don't want to be the weak link of the team.''
Eventually, they may become the strongest link. They've got a head start on that battle.
"I'm anxious to see just how good some of these guys end up being,'' said offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe.
Some of them aren't bad already.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or email@example.com.