KNOXVILLE -- First-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones likes to call the first two games of the season the meetings "of the unknowns."
While the Volunteers are playing two programs with new coaching staffs, Jones' own team has plenty of its own mysteries.
With Tennessee slated to play, as Jones has estimated, anywhere from 10 to 16 true freshmen or other first-year players Saturday night against Austin Peay, the coach is eager to see how his young team handles its first live action.
"You don't really know what to expect," he said Monday. "A lot of players will be playing for the first time, playing in front of 102,455 [Neyland Stadium's capacity]. How are they really going to act? What's going to happen with our leadership? Our playmaking ability?"
Six freshmen and one junior college transfer pop up on the Vols' two-deep depth chart, and a handful of others could play either on special teams or as part of positional rotations. Tennessee's 19 scholarship seniors are the most in at least the last three seasons for the attrition-riddled program, but the roster still includes 43 freshmen and sophomores.
When he recalled his first start Monday, senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who's started all 37 games of his career, joked that he got lost running through the band-formed "T" before the game and didn't settle in until after his first play.
"I'm excited for them," he said. "I know I was nervous back then, but at the same time I was excited. I had guys like Chris Walker and Nick Reveiz just inspiring me to go out there and play confident, so I've talked to several of them and just said, 'Go out there and play confident and prepare,' because if you prepare well you can go out there and be confident."
The biggest display of youth will be at receiver, where Tennessee could use as many as eight players who never have caught a pass in a college game.
"I'm excited to see what they can do on the field in a live situation under the lights," quarterback Justin Worley said, "and I think they'll be able to perform well."
Maggitt a maybe
Defensive ends Jacques Smith (thumb) and Corey Vereen (knee) and cornerback Riyahd Jones (calf) have been ruled out for Saturday's opener, but Jones said there's a chance linebacker Curt Maggitt could play against Austin Peay.
That seemed highly unlikely two weeks ago, as the junior was doing very little contact work in practice as he continues his recovery from a torn knee ligament suffered last November, but the Vols gradually have added more contact to Maggitt's workload.
"We're still going to take our time with him," Jones said. "We never want to rush anyone back from injury, but he's going to practice this week. He'll be probably a Friday decision on whether he'll play against Austin Peay or not."
The Vols "fully anticipate" to have Smith return against Western Kentucky the following Saturday, Jones said.
Walking the line
Kicker and cornerback are perhaps the two positions where Tennessee can least afford an injury.
Senior Michael Palardy will handle all three kicking duties, and when asked if any other specialists are making a push to take over place-kicking, kickoffs or punting, Jones bluntly replied, "No."
The listed backups at four of the five positions in the secondary are either walk-ons or true freshmen: freshman Malik Foreman and walk-on Reggie Juin, who was playing running back a couple weeks ago, at cornerback, freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford at nickelback and walk-on Max Arnold at safety.
The youth and lack of depth in the secondary place more need for the defensive front to create pressure.
"We have to do some different things to protect them, but I said the mark of playing great defense is going to be how our front seven plays," Jones said. "We have to be able to generate a pass rush with a four-down rush. We can't be having to play fire-zone coverage and give up underneath coverage zones in order to have a five- or six-man pressure on the quarterback."
With Smith, Vereen and potentially Maggitt -- perhaps the Vols' three best pass rushers -- either out or limited, Tennessee needs Corey Miller and Jordan Williams to be productive and disruptive.
Dallas on the move
After a little more than a week at defensive back, junior Vincent Dallas is back at receiver. It's the fourth move he's made between the two positions in the past two years. He's listed as a backup at receiver, but he'll certainly play in the Vols' rotation.
"Vincent does bring some experience to the wide receiver corps," Jones said, "and with the progression of Malik Foreman and Reggie Juin, that has afforded us the little luxury that we did have to move him back to offense."