Freshmen focus: Newcomers aiming to revive UT Vols football team

Freshmen focus: Newcomers aiming to revive UT Vols football team

July 22nd, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee football team freshmen Elliot Berry, Evan Berry, Neiko Creamer, Vic Wharton, Dillon Bates, and Todd Kelly, Jr., from left, pose for a portrait at the University of Tennessee Anderson Training Center in Knoxville.

Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - None of the 32 players in the University of Tennessee's touted 2014 football recruiting class lived closer to their future home than Todd Kelly.

The safety grew up in Knoxville, the son of a former Volunteers defensive lineman, and his ability attracted a number of suitors hoping to pluck him out of Tennessee's backyard.

And many of those programs -- Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, among them -- have had much more recent success than Tennessee.

Yet that seemed to be part of the allure for Kelly and many of the players that joined him in the Vols' signing class, particularly the six legacy players who spoke to the media late last week.

"Tennessee really rose above all of them because of the coaching staff and the vision they have," said Kelly, who starred at Knox Webb . "They want to bring the winning tradition back to the program, which is what everybody wants. I'm a local guy, and I've seen the fans struggle.

"It's been four losing seasons in a row, and you can see just the determination that the guys have in workouts and in meetings just staying so honed in that they want to win ball games, and I want to be a part of that."

Tennessee's six legacy freshmen -- Kelly, linebackers Dillon Bates and Neiko Creamer, defensive backs Evan and Elliott Berry and receiver Vic Wharton -- have ties to the program that go back long before they gave first-year coach Butch Jones a verbal commitment or faxed in a signed National Letter of Intent.

"Tennessee's always been kind of close to all of our hearts," Elliott Berry said, "so just the fact that we're in the position and have the opportunity to put Tennessee back at the top is a big deal to me."

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Creamer, the only one of the six to enroll in January, remembers watching highlights of his father, Andre, play defensive back at Tennessee in the mid-1980s when he was 5 years old. His godfather was the late Harry Galbreath, an offensive lineman who played nine NFL seasons after leaving Tennessee.

"I would always see a 'Power T,'" Neiko Creamer said. "[Andre] never really said much verbiage about Tennessee. When I told him Tennessee was one of my top choices, I assumed he was very proud, but growing up, he always wanted me to do what I wanted to do."

Bates, whose father Bill was a standout safety with the Vols, was living in Florida when a hurricane forced his family to evacuate, and while staying with family in Tennessee, he went to the Vols' 2004 season opener against UNLV.

"That was really the first time I've ever been in Neyland Stadium," he said. "Looking around at everybody, it was, 'Wow, this is the biggest stadium I've been in.' Just walking around the stadium and the campus and seeing my dad's name everywhere, it kind of stuck in my mind that this is something I wanted to do, and this is somewhere I fell in love with."

Wharton, the nephew of former Tennessee basketball star Brandon, was the first commitment of the class, and Kelly was No. 3. The two called themselves "The Dynamic Duo" as little league football teammates, and they had a big hand in helping Jones and his staff secure the class.

"I've always been excited to even think about Tennessee football," Kelly said. "When I committed, I told myself that I wanted to play with great guys. That's when I took the idea of finding these guys and making sure they at least get here on campus.

"If we can get them here we can basically get them because Tennessee football speaks for itself."

Of course, assembling a class that was ranked in the top five nationally by three of the four major recruiting services means Tennessee's freshmen arrive to a wave of hype and expectations.

Many will play early, but all of them are aware of their surroundings.

"Honestly, I expect a lot out of myself as well as the freshman class," Evan Berry said. "Coach Jones did a very good job of recruiting these athletes for this class. Why not expect a lot from us?"

Said Wharton: "We know we can't take time off, and we're going to have to pick up on things quickly to be able to do whatever Coach Jones and the staff need us to do. That's what they're asking for, is the early playing time. If we want to do it, we're going to have to make sure we work hard."

Jones said at SEC media days last week his 2014 class embraces the "onus" of reviving Tennessee's program, and that certainly seems to be the case.

"We all have the same goal, which is to win ball games and make sure we keep the fans happy," Kelly said. "It's going to be a slow process. It's a learning process. We've only been here for about a month-and-a-half, but ultimately we just want to make this program a better place."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.