The Tennessee Volunteers played 23 true freshmen in 2014, the most in college football. The Vols had 12 true freshmen make starts over the course of the season yet still managed to earn their first bowl appearance since 2010.
Tennessee finished at 7-6 (3-5 SEC), its first winning record since 2009 and earned its first bowl victory since 2008 with a 45-28 rout of Iowa.
Head coach Butch Jones promised to play his best players regardless of inexperience. But after successfully “outlasting growing pains,” the Vols have one of the strongest returning rosters in the SEC.
Tennessee’s entire returning offense made starting appearances in 2014. The Vols defense has eight returning starters, but looks to replace defensive tackle Jordan Williams, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Justin Coleman.
Tennessee’s prized recruit was Kahlil McKenzie, a five-star defensive tackle from Concord, California. McKenzie is a second-generation Volunteer. His father, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, and uncle, Raleigh, both played for Tennessee in the early ’80s.
The younger McKenzie ranked No. 6 overall for the 2015 recruiting class and was the No. 2 defensive tackle behind Georgia’s Trent Thompson, the nation’s top prospect. He also won dominated the 2014 Nike Opening to earn “Best Defensive Lineman” honors before committing to Tennessee during the event’s final day.
Fellow incoming freshman Shy Tuttle is also a major signee for the 2015 class. Tuttle rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 9 defensive tackle and top prospect in North Carolina. He also earned second team All-American honors.
Both players are expected to see playing time as true freshmen. The Vols have a need at defensive tackle after losing Williams to graduation. Coach Butch Jones hasn’t shied away from the idea of playing both players, admitting that both players are important to the team’s interior defensive line during a Nashville Sports Council luncheon at the Wildhorse Saloon last week.
“On the defensive front, we have some talented players but unproven players,” Jones said. “And that’s the thing: Everyone says, ‘Are you ahead of schedule? Are you behind schedule? Are you where you need to be?’ I think the greatest illustration of that is when you minimize the conversations of how many true freshmen are involved and having to play key roles.
“Right now, I’m not going to hide behind it: Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie mean everything to our success up front. We’re going to have to rely on true freshmen to play. That’s where we’re at.”
McKenzie has the advantage of being a raw talent who’s stature was SEC ready during his high school career. His pedigree and natural ability make him an obvious choice to be one of the conference’s best true freshmen in 2015.
Tuttle also has impressive size and ability, but holds the edge of enrolling early in January. He’s already made a strong impression on Tennessee’s coaches and could have an advantage of adapting to the speed of the college game.
But, as Jones proved last season, it may not come down to deciding which player fills the open vacancy rather having both start on the defensive line. While Owen Williams and Danny O’Brien are both solid interior linemen, they may not be able to hold off both incoming freshmen.
Tennessee will play whoever provides the best advantage to win in 2015. If McKenzie and Tuttle prove to be the best linemen leading up to the season opener we will likely see both players making starts on the defensive line.