Freshman foundation

Freshman foundation

UT newcomers in key spots as Vols prepare to open season Saturday

August 30th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

Tennessee freshman Marsalis Teague returns a kick off during an NCAA college football scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Tennessee freshman Marsalis Teague returns a kick off...

KNOXVILLE -- Several University of Tennessee freshmen football players were listed on the team's post-preseason camp depth chart.

None of them seemed all that surprised about it.

"The coaches just stuck with their word, and some of us freshmen came to play," said Memphis native Greg King, a second-team strongside linebacker.

First-year Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin served immediate notice upon his December arrival that age wouldn't factor into his depth chart. Less than seven days from Saturday's season opener against Western Kentucky, that still seems accurate.

Eight true freshmen -- four on each side of the ball -- are listed on the team's post-camp, two-deep depth chart. That doesn't include redshirt freshmen or true freshman tailback David Oku, who is expected to be a first-team kickoff return specialist and play several snaps on offense.

"I thought we signed a number of players that would have significant roles as freshmen for us," Kiffin said. "And with injuries, it's become more significant, especially at the receiver spot.

"There are a lot of young guys on there, but that's good. That's good for the competition. It shows that these guys have worked really hard."

Freshmen wide receivers Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague technically started Saturday's tackle-free, simulated scrimmage by being out there on the first play. Freshman Janzen Jackson started alongside All-American Eric Berry at safety.

"You've got to stay humble about everything," Teague said. "Due to injuries and stuff, opportunities present themselves, and I'm just in a situation now where I just have to make the best of this opportunity to help my team.

"Don't get me wrong, now. I'm very excited. But at the same time, I wish we could have the rest of our guys back healthy, so our receiving corps could be that much stronger."

Highly-regarded freshman Bryce Brown -- the nation's top high school prospect last season, according to many recruiting services -- didn't start but has been bracketed with senior Montario Hardesty as a co-No. 1 tailback.

Brown learned Wednesday that he was immediately eligible to play this season following an NCAA investigation into fundraising money used for college visits while he was in high school.

"The coaches always told me just not to worry about (the investigation)," Brown said. "I came to practice every day and worked as if I didn't know this thing was going on. Obviously, me being 18 years old and having that burden on my back, I'm going to think about it a little bit. But I just put my trust in all my coaches, and they came through for me. I also just trusted in the Lord -- for anyone who doesn't know me, I'm a faithful guy, and I'm a big believer -- but I always felt good about it.

"Hearing at first it's a three of four game suspension, and then hearing that that's not going to be the case, I mean, yeah, that's a relief. But I wasn't really worried about it. I was just worried about Western Kentucky."

Saturday's tackle-free scrimmage kicked off at precisely 12:21 p.m. -- the same time as the WKU game -- and they went through more than three hours of various game-like situations.

Former UT coach Phillip Fulmer had a similar no-contact Saturday one week before the first game, though he called it a "kicking scrimmage."

"I thought there was a lot of good work," Kiffin said. "Obviously, it was not an extremely physical day. It's a very mental day, with a ton of situations.

"We came up with every scenario that could possibly come up in a game, and so that was really good for our players."

The Vols have treated the past two weekends as much like games as they possibly could, even walking through Friday night at the team's home game hotel.

Jackson said he felt like the Vols have done "100 walk throughs" in preseason camp.

That's the idea, Kiffin countered, pointing to the team's reliance on so many first-year players.

"I do think we have them as ready as possible," Kiffin said. "I think we still understand that doesn't mean they'll be perfect. They're still freshmen. But putting them in all the situations that we have, that takes a lot of time and energy to set up all that stuff, and it's for a reason, so hopefully, they continue to make less mistakes as the preseason games went along, which I think we saw.

"We know that a week from today, there's going to be 100,000 people in here, and we can't simulate that. But we've done everything that we can up to this point."

Freshman wide receiver Zach Rogers said the only thing left for the freshmen to do "is have one more great week of preparation and show what we can do it in a game."

Teague agreed.

"Coach Kiffin said he was going to throw us in the fire, now, and we were like, 'OK, we'll see,'" Teague said. "Then, the next thing we know, we get to camp the first day here and all the freshmen are going in with the 1s and 2s like we were all in the rotation.

"Now, we're working toward a solid depth chart ... but it's still great that things are looking so good playing-time wise for the freshmen. (Kiffin) stayed true to his word."