Freshman finding success

Freshman finding success

Vols newcomers play early

August 10th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- High school talents like Bryce Brown and David Oku were essentially guaranteed immediate playing time at major college football programs all over the country.

College coaches from every Bowl Championship Series conference strolled onto their practice fields and into their living rooms and promised the promising players a chance to start as true freshmen.

"I think I heard just about everything," said Brown, a tailback from Kansas ranked by many analysts as the nation's No. 1 overall prospect.

Many of those players, including Brown and Oku, ultimately chose first-year University of Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin's recruiting pitch and signed with the Volunteers.

And many of them, including Brown and Oku, have already gotten more first-team practice snaps than even they anticipated.

"I was kind of wondering, like, 'How would that happen?'" Oku said Sunday afternoon. "I was kind of like, 'How are they going to do this? How did (Kiffin play so many freshmen) at USC? How did that really happen?'

"But it happened the first day. He made it to where it happened. I was surprised. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. This is unbelievable.'"

Several freshmen have played with the first or second-team units early in preseason camp, including wide receivers Nu'Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers; safeties Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles Jr.; cornerbacks Mike Edwards, Eric Gordon and Nyshier Oliver; and linebackers Jerod Askew, Greg King and Robert Nelson.

"From day 1, I've talked about in recruiting that our freshmen are going to get a shot to play early," Kiffin said. "That's not a recruiting ploy. That's to find out who are championship players are, and which guys can be great."

Even Edwards, who arrived just before camp started because of NCAA eligibility concerns, was practically thrown to the wolves.

UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's recollection of an early-week conversation with Edwards went like this: "Hi, what's your name? Mike? OK, Mike, get in there. Let's see what you can do."

"And let me tell you something," Monte said later in the week. "That Mike can do some things. He looks great out there."

Oliver laughed while recalling one of his first practice assignments, compliments of Monte Kiffin: "Go guard Gerald Jones."

So much for easing into the transition.

"I definitely feel that both Coach Kiffins are giving everybody equal opportunities," Oliver said. "They're giving everybody a shot, and I think that's good for the team, because everybody is constantly competing.

"Everybody constantly has that drive and that motivation and get that starting position."

The Vols are rail-thin at a few positions -- especially wide receiver -- and coaches knew before camp that they'd probably have to rely on freshmen in some of those spots.

But proven veterans at other positions -- especially in the secondary -- are in depth chart battles they probably didn't expect.

"The bottom line is we want to win," said senior Montario Hardesty, who still has a slight edge atop the tailback depth chart. "We were 5-7 last year. We didn't even play in a bowl game. We shouldn't expect these coaches to give us anything. You have to go out there on that practice field and earn it.

"That's how it should be. That's how you win."

Junior fullback Kevin Cooper, a former Baylor School star, said he and other UT veterans have come to appreciate Lane Kiffin's transparent, matter-of-fact ways.

Lane and his assistants told the veterans last winter that they'd better be productive in spring practice, because newcomers would get similar chances to make a first impression in preseason camp. Early errors, if any, would be made on the side of giving freshmen preferential treatment.

"I feel like we're all coming together as a team more than we have since I've been here," Cooper said. "That's what we like about Coach (Lane) Kiffin so much. He doesn't hold anything back. He's going to tell it how it is, and he's going to treat us like professionals.

"He's not going to lie to us or anything, and that's why we respect him so much. ...We know where we stand."

Lane Kiffin, a former NFL head coach with the Oakland Raiders, consistently uses the word "professional" around the players.

"Before we got here, he said he was going to treat us all like grown men, and that's exactly what he's done so far," Brown said. "That's all you can ask for."

Freshman ribbing hasn't completely vanished. Teague said he never gets to play as Tennessee during team video-game sessions because veterans get first pick.

"I always play with Miami," said Teague, who claims to be the team's top freshman at every video game. "It's tough ... but I would never be another SEC team."

Lane Kiffin asked Oku before one practice if the player got carded at PG-13 movies.

"I was like, 'Man, are you serious?'" Oku said. "Coach Kiffin said, 'You look like you're at least about 12.'

"I'm going to get him back. I'm going to get him back. I'm going to put blue dye in his shoes or something."

Jokes aside, Oku said Lane Kiffin treats every player with the same respect as All-American safety Eric Berry.

"EB is EB, but he treats EB how he treats us," Oku said. "A lot of people gave Coach Kiffin a lot of harsh things because of stuff that he did, but when it comes down to it, Coach Kiffin is a great coach. He's not going to beg anybody. He's not going to baby anybody.

"If you don't want to play, then you're not going to play. If you want to play and you want to compete, then you're going to play."