Vols freshmen finding their way in preseason camp

Tennessee Athletics photo by Emma Corona / Tennessee freshman edge rusher Joshua Josephs gets ready for a drill during preseason practice this week in Knoxville.

As one of Tennessee's 13 early enrollees from its 23-member signing class, linebacker Elijah Herring out of Murfreesboro Riverdale figured going through 15 spring practices might help slow things down as far as his adjusting to the college game.

Have things slowed?

"A little bit," Herring said in a news conference following Monday's opening preseason workout, "but it's still fast."

While the Volunteers turn to the familiar faces of efficient quarterback Hendon Hooker, 1,000-yard receiver Cedric Tillman and leading tackler Jeremy Banks in building upon last year's 7-6 team that finished third in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, freshmen are finding their way through various situations.

For defensive linemen such as edge rusher Joshua Josephs from the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, that means having to endure the occasional verbal onslaughts from position coach Rodney Garner.

"It was something," Josephs said with a smile after Monday's practice, "but he pushes you, and you want a coach like that behind you."

Though Tennessee has far more roster stability right now compared to last August, when new coach Josh Heupel and his assistant coaches were having to catch up, there is still room for freshmen to contribute.

"We have core beliefs in what we want to do, but a lot of it is based on our personnel," second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "So as we continue to figure out what some of these freshmen can do and continue to figure out what their strengths and liabilities are, we'll be able to highlight that, so to speak, in our package.

"We obviously want to try different things and try to keep the offenses guessing best we can, but at the end of the day, it's all about playing to the strength of your team."

Heupel said this week that there is "a lot of opportunity to earn reps on the defensive side of the football," which is a welcoming message for freshmen and for transfers such as defensive backs Andre Turrentine (Ohio State) and Wesley Walker (Georgia Tech).

Yet a freshman year is an uphill climb for most newcomers, which is why several defenders haven't mentioned their specific positions as starting points for opportunities.

"To be a good defensive player, you have to be a good special teams player," strong safety Jourdon Thomas of Montgomery, Alabama, said. "My goal is to do great on special teams, and we'll see what happens on defense."

Said Herring: "My goal is to start on special teams and get some kind of playing time on special teams."

Whether or not playing time awaits later this year, Tennessee's newcomers have already realized that the college landscape with its expanded coaching and nutrition staffs and enhanced amenities are not to be discounted.

"I look better," Thomas said after explaining that he has gone from 190 to 200 pounds since the start of the summer. "I feel better. I'm running faster. I just feel more athletic and that everything is smooth right now."

Even what seems like a downside - going to the end of the line in practice drills after spending their high school days in the front - has its advantages.

"I think that's actually going to be good," linebacker Kalib Perry of Georgetown, Kentucky, said. "It's going to allow me to learn more being able to see them ahead of me who've been through it and have the experience."

And as Josephs put it, "Anybody who proves to be good at their position can definitely get field time. Tennessee does play true freshmen."

Early workload

With Len'Neth Whitehead out for the season, freshman running backs Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson are getting plenty of early action in practice behind the top tandem of Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright.

"We've gotten a few more reps, but coach (Jerry) Mack is making sure we're not overworking ourselves," Williams-Thomas said Tuesday. "I don't feel like I've been overworked by any means, and I feel like it's getting me ready for the season."

Said Sampson: "I don't think there is any urgency on our part as much as it is reality that I could step on the field earlier. I came here to be ready to play at all times, and I'm trying to stay calm and collected and learn the offense."

Behind the name

Marquarius Malik White is a 5-foot-10, 160-pound freshman receiver from Birmingham more commonly known as "Squirrel." On Tuesday, he explained the nickname.

"My great grandma named me that when I was a baby and she was holding me," White said. "There was a squirrel in our garden that picked our tomatoes, and when the squirrel would move, I would move at the same time, so she just started calling me that."

Odds and ends

Sampson said the team's fastest player would be either him, White, Wright or Jimmy Holiday. Quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle on backup quarterback Joe Milton III: "We've worked all offseason on touch throws across the middle." Masai Reddick, the 6-5, 335-pound freshman right guard from Detroit, on the heat compared to back home: "It's a big difference. It's a huge difference. Being from Detroit, we'll have our hot days, but down here the humidity is insane." Tight end Ty Lockwood of Independence High School in Thompson's Station, the No. 2 prospect in Tennessee for the 2023 signing cycle, committed Tuesday to Alabama.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.