KNOXVILLE - No college football coach ever gets comfortable playing freshmen, but Derek Dooley had plenty of practice at it last season.
The University of Tennessee football coach inherited a returning roster in his first season last year with plenty of holes throughout the depth chart. Mostly because he didn't have much of a choice, Dooley did what he had to: play more than a dozen freshmen in contributing roles.
The situation hasn't changed much in Dooley's second season with the Volunteers.
"We're so used to playing freshmen around here, we don't know what it's like not to have to get a freshman ready to play at a position," he said after the Vols' first scrimmage of preseason camp earlier this month.
"We've gotten pretty good at it, I guess."
From the slot receiver, the second and third tight ends and backup roles along the offensive line to two linebackers and some spots in the secondary, the Vols are going to count on freshmen at an array of spots this fall as Dooley continues to create the foundation for his program's ongoing rebuilding project.
Physically, the group of 23 high school seniors and three junior college players who signed with UT in February pass the eye test.
"A lot of good-looking players," Dooley said. "Height, weight, speed, athleticism - just what I'd anticipated and why we signed them. It looks significantly different at a lot of positions. Guys that are a little bigger [in] stature [and] some talented guys. Still really not good football players yet.
"It gives you a little encouragement, but we've got a long way to go."
UT's coaching staff constantly has struggled to hide its excitement about tailback Marlin Lane and outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson. Cornerback Justin Coleman, who enrolled early and practiced in the spring, appears to have grabbed a rotation spot. Junior college transfers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier are adding dimensions to UT's secondary, and junior college defensive tackle Maurice Couch has improved throughout fall camp.
A handful of other fresh faces will have to play as well. Although it's not a death wish, it's certainly a scary formula to use in the daunting Southeastern Conference.
"When you go and play the teams we're going to play," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said, "they could care less if you're a freshman or a senior. They don't care.
"Potential gets everybody excited: coaches, fans, you guys - we're all in the same boat. What we're going to be looking for from here on out is production. Those [newcomers] are going to be thrown into the mix right away. We're going to expect a lot out of them in terms of how they practice, how they prepare, how they learn. It happens fast. We'll see."
It might be a little different if the freshmen were playing alongside a host of upperclassmen, but sophomores hold eight of the 11 starting spots on UT's offense and as many as five spots on defense. The Vols have 10 scholarship seniors on the roster. It's everybody's second year in Dooley's program, so the transition is still ongoing a little bit.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding UT's freshmen, there's still some familiarity with the class that the Vols' staff targeted and recruited for more than a year.
"I sat in their living rooms, I know what their makeup is," Dooley said. "I know and have a better feel for the things that we probably shouldn't do when we coach them and the things that will motivate them a little bit. You have a better feel for the guys, and hopefully they chose this school because they believe in our coaches and our system.
"There's a lot of uncertainty in a lot of areas, but we do have a better handle on what we think."
There's that blueprint from last year, too.