According to the official NCAA data, a total of 18 players who were brand new to the Tennessee program last fall played in at least one game. Four of those were junior college players, and 14 were true freshmen.
That’s a bunch, and I doubt that we’ll see that number again this fall, but we could still see a lot of new faces. Well, jersey numbers anyway.
Whether a guy makes it onto the field in his first season on campus depends on a variety of factors, but chief among them are (1) the opportunity at his position, (2) his own talent level, and (3) the talent level of the guys already there at the position.
Taking all of that into consideration, here’s a look at the new guys ranked by their likelihood of playing time this fall.
1. DL Aubrey Solomon
Assuming his request for immediate eligibility is approved, of course, the Michigan transfer is not only really talented, he’s walking into vacuum along the defensive line. Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson, and Shy Tuttle are all gone, so there are three starting spots up for grabs, and they’ll go to the three best bets. If Solomon is eligible, he’s almost certain to be one of those guys.
2. OL Darnell Wright
Wright is the highest-rated newcomer on Tennessee’s roster, ranking GDS4 (No. 4 in our magazine’s SEC rankings for the Class of 2019). Assuming he is indeed as talented as his ranking suggests, there are only two hurdles for him to overcome. First, the offensive line returns 80% of its starts from last season, and second, Wright did not participate in spring practice, so he only has a short time to win the spot.
No offense to the starters from last season, but they’ve been “recruited over,” meaning Wright is probably already more talented than they are, and he definitely has a higher ceiling. I’m expecting him to start, if not in the season-opener, then pretty soon thereafter.
3. DL Savion Williams
Williams is only GDS133, but he’s the 14th-best junior college prospect in this year’s class, according to 247Sports. You know what they say about JUCO guys — they’re not recruited to sit on the bench — and Williams is a particularly good one. Plus, the defensive line needs somebody, and Williams seems well-positioned to compete with the non-starters already on the roster for one of the three empty spots.
4. DB Deangelo Gibbs
This may come as a bit of a surprise to some, as Gibbs didn’t get as much press as you would have expected this spring for a former highly-touted transfer from Georgia. Plus, the 2017 season provided a lot of starting experience to a lot of young and talented DBs who are now presumably ahead of Gibbs in the rotation. But Gibbs is really talented and has experience with a winning program, and Pruitt seems to use a lot of bodies back there, so I expect to see Gibbs a fair amount at some point this season.
5. OL Wanya Morris
Many would put Morris higher on this list and probably even above Wright just because Morris has already been seen working with the ones at left tackle in spring practice. I do think that’s a good indication that he’ll be starting on the line early, but his ranking is not as high as Wright’s and if Morris can win a position in a short spring camp, Wright can win one in a short fall camp. Fussing about the pecking order of these two newcomers is a nice problem to have.
6. LB Quavaris Crouch
Crouch (GSD30) is yet another exceptionally talented young guy, and with the retirement of Darrin Kirkland Jr., Crouch will now have an even better opportunity to get into the mix early and often. He gets the nod over fellow incoming LB Henry To’oto’o because he was here for spring practice.
7. LB Henry To’oto’o
Vol Nation was excited to get To’oto’o (GDS49) as a late pickup over some elite recruiting competition. Like Crouch, he’s talented enough at a position with enough opportunity to earn a fair amount of playing time this fall. Unlike Crouch, though, he was not an early enrollee, so he has to navigate over the learning curve before he can get on the field.
The complete list
Here’s the entire list of guys, ranked by likelihood of playing time this fall:
Notes on positional need
As noted earlier, the team’s need is greatest along the defensive line, so the opportunity for playing time there is wide open.
The offensive line is wide open, but for another reason. Most of the starters are back, but the unit has underperformed for many years, and so there’s early opportunity for anyone to dislodge the starters, especially for elite-level prospects.
Opportunity in the defensive backfield is currently a mixture of experienced upperclassmen and guys who are still young but have already been through the fire for a season. That said, there were some key departures from last year’s team, so there is an opportunity there.
With the retirement of Kirkland, there is also a degree of opportunity in the linebacking corps, and that unit, like most others, could use some additional depth.
Barring injury, there is not much opportunity at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, or tight end, at least for starting gigs. The coaches do generally like to rotate a lot of bodies in at running back and wide receiver, though, so although the starting positions are locked up, there are opportunities to get on the field in a back-up role.