Jones said throughout the preseason that many of his freshmen would have to play right away, and a look at Tennessee’s depth chart bears that out. As many as three freshmen could be opening their college careers as starters.
Wide receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cameron Sutton already have won starting spots. Wide receiver Josh Smith is listed as a co-starter alongside redshirt freshman Jason Croom. Offensive guard Dylan Wiesman, cornerback Malik Foreman and nickel back Devaun Swafford are on the second team.
None of the six freshmen included in the depth chart were on campus for spring practice. They instead arrived this summer and performed well enough in training camp to show they could contribute immediately. Jones said Monday that he expected to play anywhere from 10 to 16 freshmen against Austin Peay.
“Some of it was that is just where we are at with the program,” Jones said. “It is what it is. Then some guys have done a great job. Freshmen develop differently. I think this was a very talented incoming freshman class.”
The freshmen weren’t available to comment on the possibility of early playing time. Team policy prohibits freshmen from talking to the media until it is deemed they have made a significant contribution.
North’s move atop the depth chart was somewhat expected. North was rated as one of the nation’s top receiving prospects in his class when he signed with Tennessee out of Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek. The Volunteers are counting on the 6-foot-4 freshman to emerge as an immediate playmaker in a receiving corps that must replace first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter.
“You can tell the difference between his maturity level and some of the other freshmen,” senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “That’s why he’s getting this opportunity, and we need him to step up right now. He’s done a good job asking questions if he needs something and just really buying in.”
The rapid rises of Sutton and Smith are more surprising. Both were regarded as consensus three-star prospects by the major recruiting services. They’ve adapted quickly since arriving on campus and have capitalized on Tennessee’s lack of depth at wide receiver and cornerback.
Smith, a local product, caught 65 passes for 1,176 yards and 15 touchdowns his senior year at Christian Academy of Knoxville despite missing part of the season with a broken collarbone. He stepped right into a featured role at Tennessee, which doesn’t return a single wideout who caught more than 13 passes or accumulated more than 149 receiving yards last season.
Senior running back Rajion Neal says Smith reminds him of former Tennessee wide receiver Zach Rogers, who had seven touchdown catches last season.
“(He’s) smooth,” Neal said. “Good hands. I like his elusiveness. Calm, quiet guy. .... He’s got some skill to him.”
Sutton was a cornerback, wide receiver, punter and returner at Jonesboro (Ga.) High who gained 1,396 all-purpose yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a senior. He wasted no time making a name for himself during Tennessee’s training camp.
“Cam’s been making plays from day one,” junior cornerback Justin Coleman said.
Sutton’s mental approach has impressed secondary coach Willie Martinez.
It’s “his poise, how poised he is, how consistent he is at staying calm even through the storm,” Martinez said. “When things don’t go right, he keeps on plugging away. (He’s) a lot more mature than the normal freshman. He’s smart. He’s athletic. He picks up our defense really fast.”
The Vols are relying on Sutton and Foreman to boost a cornerback position that ranks among Tennessee’s chief concerns.
Tennessee’s lack of bodies in the secondary is evident from Swafford’s inclusion on the depth chart. Not only is he a freshman, he also is a walk-on.
Swafford is one of three walk-ons to earn second-team spots in the secondary. Sophomore Max Arnold is the backup strong safety. Fifth-year senior Reggie Juin made the depth chart as a backup cornerback just two weeks after moving over from wide receiver.