KNOXVILLE — Going into his second football season at Tennessee, coach Jeremy Pruitt has found himself leaning on the senior class during spring drills.
With just 12 seniors on the roster, it's a small one to lean on.
With 10 of 15 NCAA-allotted practices behind the Volunteers after Tuesday's work at Haslem Field, though, the seniors have been the leaders this spring. And with those 12 players at key positions — there are four receivers, two linebackers, two defensive backs, a running back, a tight end, a defensive end and a long snapper in the class — they've been able to provide some knowledge as part of a roster that is being rebuilt.
"It's a small group," Pruitt said after Tuesday's practice. "I think it's a group that has put a lot into the University of Tennessee. I think they've represented the University of Tennessee very well. They are guys that will graduate from here. I think they're hungry. They've worked really hard in the last 18 months, and they've continued to do that. I know these guys are excited about every opportunity they have to go practice, and you can see it in the way they practice and prepare."
The Vols have almost as many early enrollees — 10, all of them freshmen — in the program as seniors. While the seniors have only one more year of experience in Pruitt's system than the freshmen, they do have multiple years of college experience, giving the newcomers a reason to lean on them.
Aside from on the defensive line and at long snapper, every position group has a newcomer to the program.
Brian Maurer joined the quarterbacks. Eric Gray — who had shoulder surgery in January — jumped into the mix at running back. Ramel Keyton came on with the receivers, Jackson Lowe with the tight ends and Chris Akporoghene and Wanya Morris joined the offensive line. Quavaris Crouch is with the linebackers, while Warren Burrell, Tyus Fields and Jaylen McCullough hopped in with the defensive backs.
Those newcomers are expected to contribute this season, and it's up to those already in the program to help them realize that and prepare accordingly. Keyton has the luxury of working with Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Brandon Johnson, four seniors who have seen a lot of action.
"He's doing good," Callaway said Wednesday of Keyton. "He's working, trying to get on the field and show what he can do. He's thinking too much. You can tell, but we tell him, 'You're not a freshman. We're going to need you to play.' So he's always asking stuff, and we're trying to get him better so he can come out and play.
"Coming in early and trying to learn is hard to do and not everybody can do it, but at this level, he's going to have to. That's something he knows, something the receivers are telling him, something the coaches are telling him. He's not a freshman anymore, so he's going to have to come in, be a big boy and play."
A lot of younger players will be in position to play for the Vols this season.
That makes the 12-player senior class that much more important.