Several Vols freshmen having to catch up to classmates

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee freshman running back Khalifa Keith listens to running backs coach Jerry Mack during Wednesday's first preseason practice in Knoxville. Keith enrolled in June, so it was his first collegiate practice.

Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel was pleased with Wednesday morning's first practice of the preseason, citing "a ton of energy" from his Volunteers.

That assessment may seem rather expected, but Heupel admits there can be rough starts to August camp and that he has experienced such days.

"Have I ever seen a bad one? Yeah," Heupel said in a news conference. "If you don't do a good job of being intentional and are not building them the right way and you end up having a guy who gets nicked up -- that's something you've got to be really intentional with at the beginning of training camp.

"When you think of the ability of your players to communicate at a really high level and some of the things you've been intentional with all spring and all summer, if those things don't show up, that can be a telltale sign the culture and what you're trying to build isn't going in the right direction."

The Vols went through fundamental work with some team work as well, according to Heupel, who was impressed with the way players reset following spring practice and summer conditioning.

"As you go through spring, you continue to add to your installs, and you do some of that in the summer," Heupel said. "You get back here, and now it's going to come faster than it did in spring ball just because you're practicing back-to-back days, but you are resetting to the beginnings of who you are structurally in all three phases.

"My expectations were that when we got out there that they were dramatically different players from when they finished spring ball, in particular our young guys. You could see them retain and execute at a higher level and that they were better fundamentally."

Not everybody fell into that category, of course, as Tennessee had nine freshmen go through their first practice. Edge rusher Chandavian Bradley, running back Khalifa Keith and defensive end Tyree Weathersby were among the June enrollees getting their first taste.

Another defensive lineman, Daevin Hobbs, enrolled in January but couldn't go through contact work in the spring due to a shoulder injury.

"I knew that it was going to be hard," Bradley said, "and I knew that they were going to come at me, because I'm brand new. I knew the coaches would be on me.

"When we went into team drills and actually went against our offense and that tempo -- I don't understand how other teams are able to keep up sometimes."

Keith admitted that pass protection is his biggest shortcoming, which is rather normal for running backs.

"It's been a big adjustment, because in high school, I never had to pass pro," Keith said. "I had to pass pro a little bit, but at the college level there is so much technique to it. It's definitely new to me, but I'm catching on."

The Vols had 18 freshmen go through spring practice, and those who didn't realize the clock will be ticking at a rapid rate before the Sept. 2 season opener against Virginia in Nashville.

"It has definitely cranked up my urgency a lot," Weathersby said. "I had to be on my 'A' game today, because they've been learning plays since December. The season is right around the corner.

"I've got to do what I've got to do. I've got no choice."

Emmanuel Okoye was a late addition to Tennessee's 2023 class, with the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder from Nigeria signing in May. He played last fall at the NFL Academy in England, earning four-star status as an edge rusher.

Okoye worked at tight end during his first college practice.

"He was a great basketball player, too, so he's got great athletic traits," Heupel said. "We've watched his hands a little bit on the basketball court, and we felt like that would transition over. He's got length and athleticism, and it's why we started him at the position we did. He's got a long, great football journey ahead of him, but today was just day one for him on the field.

"When you think about where he was 12 months ago and where he is today, it's a drastic difference in the competition he is facing. We're excited about him, because he's urgent and he cares. He continues to grow from day to day and rep to rep, but it's a long process."

'Coach G' initiation

The first August workout can be a wake-up call for defensive linemen under position coach Rodney Garner, but Wednesday's newcomers insist they knew what to expect.

"After signing day, he came into my school, because we have other people at our school being recruited," Bradley said. "I met up with him, and the first thing he said was, 'You're signed now. It's over. We're not treating you like a baby anymore. I'm going to be on you about every little thing.

"He did not lie, because I got texts at least once a week from him making sure I was doing what I needed to do. Since I've been here, he's been on me, on me, on me."

Bradley added that he actually doesn't mind being yelled at in practice because it helps make him a better player. Hobbs didn't seem bothered by it, either.

"There is nothing I can do about it," Hobbs said. "You've got to love it. That's just the way he is."

Pancakes galore

Freshman Ayden Bussell, who worked at left guard Wednesday, amassed more than 150 pancake blocks during his career at Mt. Juliet High School.

"It's pure happiness to be able to physically dominate somebody," the 6-5, 295-pounder said of the tally. "There is no feeling like putting somebody on their back and being like, 'You have no power over me.'

"There is no other feeling like it."

Patience at tackle

Jeremiah Crawford and Gerald Mincey split time at left tackle last season, and Heupel did not rule out the possibility of that happening again somewhere on the offensive line.

"The reality is that we're going to need all those guys to play, and that's been proven over time everywhere I have been, including here," Heupel said. "This is the time of year where you've got to let the competition unfold. The guys who are consistent and play at a high level are the guys you've got to find a role for, and we'll see where that ends up."

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