Tennessee's football team couldn't afford to wait on its freshmen. Those young guys also had no interest in waiting to produce.
That combination didn't help the Vols finish the season with a bowl bid, but after again getting so many first-year players on the field and knocking out a few growing pains quickly, they could be in much better position to make a run moving forward in Derek Dooley's third season.
Assuming the development continues as planned for UT, starting with these five players after productive debut seasons, the program could be in good hands when the freshman label is officially shed and they return as experienced sophomores.
Position: Offensive guard
Data: 12 games, five starts, part of a line that allowed six sacks during games he started
Behind the numbers: Jackson showed up on campus and was instantly one of the strongest linemen the Vols had, which is both a credit to the way he prepared himself for the college level and a reflection of the rebuilding job the program was undergoing up front. Jackson wasn't quite as ready for the mental and competitive challenge of playing every snap right away, but by the end of his first campaign he had carved out a first-team role and looked like somebody who would be as hard to move on the depth chart as he is on the field at 6-foot-3, 326 pounds.
Next step: Dooley has moved relatively quickly to restock the line with talented, physical players, and the competition should be particularly heated on the interior as he prepares for his third year leading UT. Jackson gained valuable experience, James Stone and Zach Fulton have been on the field for two years at guard and Alex Bullard was a mainstay in the trenches after transferring from Notre Dame. After struggling at times to simply find five guys to roll with, the Vols should instead be trying to pare it down next fall.
Position: Running back
Data: 75 carries for 280 yards with two touchdowns; 17 receptions for 161 yards with two touchdowns; seven punt returns for 36 yards and seven kickoff returns for 143 yards
Behind the numbers: Lane certainly made a splash right away, making a pair of visits to the end zone in his debut and looking like just the multipurpose weapon the team needed in the backfield to complement starter Tauren Poole. Ultimately both the senior and the newcomer left some yardage on the field for various reasons, with Lane's health certainly among the issues that slowed him down late in the year. When he was sharp, Lane was making decisive cuts and blending that with speed to run away from defenders — like he did on a touchdown grab against Montana in the opener. But he wasn't the same guy all year, and the offseason scope on his knee provided some evidence why.
Next step: Poole is gone now, and with or without the veteran the Vols were going to need dramatic progress on the ground after a disappointing year for the tailbacks. Lane is surely the leading candidate to take over the majority of the work based on his experience and talent, assuming there is no lingering concern about his health — which there doesn't appear to be based on the expected full clearance for spring practice. Lane isn't going to be able to do everything himself, though, and whether it's the emergence of Tom Smith, expanded roles for Devrin Young or walk-on Jaron Toney or perhaps help from somebody not yet on campus, added depth will be just as critical as improved comfort for Lane.
Data: 12 games, eight starts, 55 tackles, one takedown for a loss, one forced fumble, two passes defended
Behind the numbers: The defensive back didn't come in with the most hype of the class, and he might not have even received the most attention of any of the signees just in the secondary. But the coaching staff was always high on his intelligence and athleticism, and he delivered in a way that few others in the freshman class were able to last fall. There were occasional lapses and breakdowns along the way, which were to be expected, but by the end of his debut season he could be counted on to finish tackles and certainly appeared to be getting a better handle on his responsibilities at the back of the defense. Like a few other first-year players in the UT secondary, the loss of Janzen Jackson in August and an injury to Brent Brewer amplified the pressure, but the way Randolph handled the adversity bodes well for his future.
Next step: The Vols clearly put a premium on adding depth in the secondary last year, and that effort appears to have netted a solid building block in that process with Randolph at safety. How UT will fill in around him remains to be seen, particularly since rising senior Prentiss Waggner is perhaps more ideally suited to playing at cornerback. The competition should be heated among the cover guys, and if Brewer is able to return healthy and ready to again be a hard-hitting force at the other safety spot, the Vols could be in good shape in the backend.
Position: Linebacker/defensive end
Data: 11 games, eight starts, 56 tackles, one sack, eight tackles for a loss, one forced fumble
Behind the numbers: The coaching staff could hardly contain its excitement during training camp as Maggitt started showing his stuff, and nothing that happened after the season opened did much to alter the expectations for him. The blend of size, speed and intelligence Maggitt brings to the table is rare, and based on the early returns after being thrown into the starting lineup right away, there might not be a limit to what he's capable of down the road as a sideline-to-sideline tackler and a potentially dynamic pass rusher. Before getting too carried away, Maggitt did have some injury concerns during his first season, missing one game with a calf problem, and he will be held out of contact during spring practice after having shoulder surgery. But if he stays healthy, the coaches might again find it difficult to hide their feelings about Maggitt.
Next step: The middle of the defense can't rely solely on Maggitt and classmate A.J. Johnson to handle all the heavy lifting, and how exactly the Vols will proceed at linebacker is a bit of an unknown at this point. Certainly in the spring UT will have a chance to get a good look at its options with Maggitt on the sideline, with Dontavis Sapp likely to be under the microscope with Herman Lathers also closely watched as he tries to return from injuries. But obviously the Vols would rather have Maggitt taking those reps in the spring to help continue his development, but that will have to wait for now.
Data: 12 games, 10 starts, 80 tackles, seven takedowns for a loss, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble
Behind the numbers: The volume of tackles is impressive enough for a player barely out of high school. But it was the way those hits were accumulated that really stood out with Johnson, who didn't seem satisfied to simply get a ballcarrier on the ground — they had to be driven to the turf. Johnson hardly needed any time to adjust his physical style of play to the collegiate level, winning a starting job on the outside during training camp and developing into one of UT's most productive defenders after just a few games despite occasionally looking like he might be playing out of position. With a full year in the weight room and more familiarity with the defensive schemes heading into his sophomore campaign, Johnson has a chance to do some special things for the Vols on defense.
Next step: For somebody with so much success right away, there wouldn't normally be much incentive to tinker around with a player after a season like Johnson had as a freshman. But the Vols could well make a move with Johnson from the outside to the middle depending on how the rest of the crew at linebacker develops, with the return of a healthy Lathers possibly the most important factor in that decision. If Lathers is able to play with the speed and play-making ability he was displaying late in the 2010 season, Johnson would appear to be a natural fit in the middle with Maggitt at the other outside spot. One way or another, Johnson is going to be heavily involved and a critical component of the unit, but where exactly he lines up remains to be seen.