Mike Strange: There are unsung players hidden on every depth chart

Mike Strange
Tennessee defensive backs JaRon Toney, right, and Devaun Swafford run drills during practice in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, August 2, 2013. 
 

(AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)

Photo by Saul Young, AP 2013

Tennessee defensive backs JaRon Toney, right, and Devaun Swafford run drills during practice in Knoxville, Tenn. on Friday, August 2, 2013. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)

The whistles shrieked. The megaphone blared. Friday afternoon, it was, at long last, football time in Tennessee.

At least it was at Haslam Field. Down the street, Neyland Stadium sat quiet and empty, ignored.

Tennessee opened practice Friday, the first fall camp under a new coach, Butch Jones. And what happens on the relative privacy of Haslam Field will determine what eventually happens in the deafening crucible of Neyland Stadium.

We think we have a pretty good idea who will do what on Saturdays in 2013. There is a depth chart. We know who did what in 2012 and have the stats to prove it.

But there will be surprises. Guys we aren’t talking about on opening day will inevitably break through and join the conversation when the lights come on.

“There always is, every year on every team,’’ UT receivers coach Zach Azzanni said Friday.

So those guys were out there Friday, a couple of them anyway. We just didn’t know which ones.

“We’re evaluating everybody right now to see who can help us,’’ Azzanni said. “That’s why there are 105 players in camp. We’re gonna get a look at all 105.’’

That’s good to know if you’re guy No. 94. You weren’t offered a scholarship. You’re paying your way, knowing the odds aren’t in your favor. But you work just as hard as guy No. 10. And you hope.

To quote Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas, so you’re telling me there’s a chance?

On opening day last year did anyone know Jacob Carter was going to break into the receiver rotation, play in 11 games and catch eight passes, including a touchdown?

On opening day last year did anyone know Jaron Toney would earn a place at nickel back, start two games and be the team’s seventh-leading tackler?

On opening day last year did Tyler Drummer know he would score a touchdown in overtime against Missouri?

On opening day 2011 did Derrick Brodus even dare dream that he’d be summoned off his couch one November Saturday morning, rushed to the stadium by police escort and kick a field goal and three extra points against Middle Tennessee State?

On opening day 2010 did Joseph Ayers, a freshman walk-on from Knoxville have a clue he’d start at defensive tackle against Florida?

It’s not just walk-ons. On opening day 2011 there wasn’t a lot of discussion that true freshman Marcus Jackson might start five games at guard.

That same year, true freshman Brian Randolph wasn’t ticketed to start at safety. Whoops, Janzen Jackson got the boot and Randolph started eight games.

Come to think of it, on opening day at Texas A&M last year did anyone know Johnny Manziel would be the Aggies’

starting quarterback, much less the first freshman to win the Heisman?

“Everybody,’’ said UT tight ends coach Mark Elder, “is going to have their shot, their opportunity to show what they can do.’’

Elder produced a good example Friday. Alex Ellis is a walk-on tight end from Delaware. He’s been around two years but never crossed that white sideline onto the field for a single play in a real game.

“He took reps with the ones (first team) today,’’ Elder said, “and he’ll continue to do that. Not every walk-on or every scholarship guy is gonna take reps with the ones.

“I don’t think there’s a single guy on our staff or in our program that cares about whether a guy is a walk-on, a scholarship guy, a fifth-year senior or a true freshman.

“The guys that deserve the reps are going to get them. Period. The end.’’

We think we know who will deserve them, but there are always surprises.

Every year on every team.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44

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Comments » 15

Vol1973 writes:

Let's have 22 unsung hero's, 11 on offense and 11 on defense... Go Vols!!!

ThaiVolFan writes:

Well written article Mike. Good job!
GBO

wononta writes:

The Vols have 5 lb's who are seniors this yr, and if this is AJ's last yr, linebacker will be an area of need next yr.

So we need Kenny Bynum to emerge. Good looking kid, 245 lb RSfr, RB's nightmare.

Go Kenny!

Henley-Street-Bridge writes:

nice article today Mike.. It's a good way too of explaining why College football is more interesting to watch than the pros; it's a constantly changing cast of characters to keep up with and watch develop as a fan some great story lines about where they come from and each guys challenges.

Go VOLS!!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Golly!! Can I play? I should be still eligible.

OrangePride writes:

There are MANY preseason unsung heros from all era's. Hunter, Patterson, and a somewhat unknown freshman called Manning all stepped in during their first year and made big differences. That said, I don't think there has been a much more critical time than this for our VOLS to have four or five off-the-radar guys to step in right now and become playmakers. Sure, Dooley's first year was a patchwork job also, but for us VOL faithful we want to see good things NOW. Not necessarily win 9 games, but just great plays, competitive four quarter football, and fire in this team for an entire season. In short we want Butch and this VOL team to end the season feeling good about its accomplishments.....because then we will feel good with them. But for that to happen.........well, we need some new faces to really shine and play some great ball! Can that happen? You bet it can! And will that happen? You bet it will.....and I'M ALL IN FOR TENNESSEE!!! WHOSE WITH ME ON THAT?!! GO VOLS!!!!!

antonio14313 writes:

in response to ThaiVolFan:

Well written article Mike. Good job!
GBO

I agree. Above average article!

Go Vols.

t

murrayvol writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

Golly!! Can I play? I should be still eligible.

You could play but it probably wouldn't be your best move.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to murrayvol:

You could play but it probably wouldn't be your best move.

It's be my last move ever in this world.hehe
Not to worry they aren't gonna let me play.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to OrangePride:

There are MANY preseason unsung heros from all era's. Hunter, Patterson, and a somewhat unknown freshman called Manning all stepped in during their first year and made big differences. That said, I don't think there has been a much more critical time than this for our VOLS to have four or five off-the-radar guys to step in right now and become playmakers. Sure, Dooley's first year was a patchwork job also, but for us VOL faithful we want to see good things NOW. Not necessarily win 9 games, but just great plays, competitive four quarter football, and fire in this team for an entire season. In short we want Butch and this VOL team to end the season feeling good about its accomplishments.....because then we will feel good with them. But for that to happen.........well, we need some new faces to really shine and play some great ball! Can that happen? You bet it can! And will that happen? You bet it will.....and I'M ALL IN FOR TENNESSEE!!! WHOSE WITH ME ON THAT?!! GO VOLS!!!!!

Careful. Optimism and feeling good about the team can be catching.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

Iam really looking forward to all the possibilities at WR. I think Pig Howards gonna have a big season..Beyond that anything could happen. Kind of have to look back at what Cinncy did last year to see the possibilities on offense..Jones was a run first offense and used about 5 WR's. One was Kembrell Thompkins who you might remember as a Vol prospect. The Louisville/Cinncy game was excellent last year..I'll never forget Louisville scoring on a 64 yard pass to go ahead with under 2 minutes left..Major celebration on the sideline that was quickly interrupted when Cinncy took 53 seconds and 3 plays to score the tying TD..The look on the Louis.. players faces was priceless

johnlg00 writes:

in response to OrangePride:

There are MANY preseason unsung heros from all era's. Hunter, Patterson, and a somewhat unknown freshman called Manning all stepped in during their first year and made big differences. That said, I don't think there has been a much more critical time than this for our VOLS to have four or five off-the-radar guys to step in right now and become playmakers. Sure, Dooley's first year was a patchwork job also, but for us VOL faithful we want to see good things NOW. Not necessarily win 9 games, but just great plays, competitive four quarter football, and fire in this team for an entire season. In short we want Butch and this VOL team to end the season feeling good about its accomplishments.....because then we will feel good with them. But for that to happen.........well, we need some new faces to really shine and play some great ball! Can that happen? You bet it can! And will that happen? You bet it will.....and I'M ALL IN FOR TENNESSEE!!! WHOSE WITH ME ON THAT?!! GO VOLS!!!!!

Good post. I mostly agree with you, but your examples of "unsung heroes" were not quite in the spirit of the article. EVERYBODY wanted Manning, Hunter, and Patterson; it was only a question of WHEN they would be major stars.

No, Mike is talking about, well, the guys he's talking about, the ones that nobody wanted, the ones that everybody told to just give it up and be a normal person--THOSE guys who rise up out of obscurity to perform with distinction at a time of need. I don't think we have a Manning, Hunter, or Patterson on the squad--at least not that we know about yet--so we need some guys to rise up from out of the nether reaches of the depth chart to step in and lend a hand in the resurgence of Volunteer Football!

bUTch_please writes:

Croom. Young. Quinn.

Dontavis. Riyahd.

OrangePride writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Good post. I mostly agree with you, but your examples of "unsung heroes" were not quite in the spirit of the article. EVERYBODY wanted Manning, Hunter, and Patterson; it was only a question of WHEN they would be major stars.

No, Mike is talking about, well, the guys he's talking about, the ones that nobody wanted, the ones that everybody told to just give it up and be a normal person--THOSE guys who rise up out of obscurity to perform with distinction at a time of need. I don't think we have a Manning, Hunter, or Patterson on the squad--at least not that we know about yet--so we need some guys to rise up from out of the nether reaches of the depth chart to step in and lend a hand in the resurgence of Volunteer Football!

Good points. Perhaps not the best choices, but just trying to say that a lot of guys you hear little about in the preseason really step up. And no, I doubt there is a Manning out there as he is a once in a generation or two talent. Hunter? Not so sure North won't put up Hunter-like freshman stats this year...could happen. Patterson? Well, he was a unique running talent....but route running and becoming available? Yea....I think we have some guys with that kind of talent. But we both agree......Tennessee REALLY needs some guys to step up off the depth chart and become playmakers.

johnlg00 writes:

I am hearing great things about North; others say Croom and Howard are ready to break out. Any skill person on the offense other than, say, Neal or Lane who really breaks out will be something of a surprise. The fact is, "talent is as talent does", regardless of whether anybody expected a particular player to be "talented". If some guy we haven't heard of yet goes off, he was probably talented all along but never got the proper chance to show it, or we would have heard about him by now. IOW, "talent" is not exactly equal to "reputation."

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