Recruiting analysts dubbed Bryce Brown the top tailback prospect in the nation. During Thursday’s practice, he was the top target.
The freshman from Wichita, Kan., was on the receiving side of at least three big hits as Tennessee donned shoulder pads for the first time in preseason camp.
“I doubt he’s been hit like that before ever,” first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin said. “Some guys get hit like that and they stay down for a while.”
Linebacker Herman Lathers dolled out the first and perhaps most jarring blow — a blindside blast that sent the 6-foot, 215-pound Brown to the turf as the ball flew free.
“It’s just, ‘Welcome to SEC ball,’ ” the 6-1, 213-pound Lathers said.
Kiffin applauded the contact even though the first day of full pads isn’t until Saturday.
“That’s what we need to do,” Kiffin said of physical play. “This conference is going to hit him like that. They’re not going to take it easy on him.”
Kiffin said such plays are part of the reason he believes in physical practices early in fall camp.
“Those were big-time, game-time major hits,” Kiffin said. “That was 99 percent. Running through him. He needs that.
“He fumbled it today. If we went the avenue where we practiced 80 percent, that would have been the opener right there (when he fumbled).”
Kiffin believes Brown is now on the path to earning his teammates’ respect since he quickly bounced up after each hit, finished practice strong and never complained about getting knocked around.
“That’s when they start letting you in,” Kiffin said. “You just don’t get in automatically in football. Those old guys aren’t going to let you in until you prove yourself.”
Brown, who isn’t available for interviews as per UT’s freshman policy, might have already created some waves before practice even began had receiver Todd Campbell not been so understanding.
The sophomore reserve was told unceremoniously that he wouldn’t be wearing the No. 11 jersey he wore last year. That number now belongs to Brown.
“It was a surprise to me, but a number is a number,” said Campbell, who is sporting No. 85. “If you’re going to ball, you’re going to ball in whatever you wear. I could wear 137. If I’m still playing I’m fine with that.
“A lot of kids would come back and have hard feelings about that. I wasn’t worried about it. I like Bryce. I don’t have anything against him. If he needs anything, he knows I’m right there for him.”
Lathers was also there for Brown following practice. Lathers made a point to shake hands with Brown as he sat on the practice field, obviously drained from what must have been the toughest practice of his life.
Lathers can empathize. It wasn’t that long ago that the suddenly hard-hitting redshirt freshman was a newcomer on campus like Brown.
“When I was a young guy and first came in, it was like everybody was out to get you,” Lathers said. “Just welcome you to SEC ball, so everybody was out to get you.”
Lathers said Brown’s former status as one of the top prospects in the nation doesn’t mean UT’s defenders are out to get him.
But is he a target simply because he is a freshman?
“I would say, ‘yeah,’ ” Lathers said with a smile.