KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt hopes a theory his father has about the perils of playing freshmen doesn’t apply to all situations.
“My dad’s always had a saying, for every freshman you play is a loss that you should have on your record,” said Pruitt, the son of longtime Alabama high school coach Dale Pruitt. “That’s the way he looks at it in high school, and if you look at it along the way, it’s probably about right.”
Pruitt really doesn’t have any other option.
The coach made his comments about freshmen last week while discussing the importance of avoiding unrealistic expectations with younger players. But as much as Pruitt wants to remain patient, Tennessee’s circumstances demand he gives some opportunities to his newcomers.
Although Pruitt declined to estimate how many freshmen will play Saturday in the season opener with Georgia State, Tennessee’s unofficial projected depth chart has five true freshmen listed in bold as possible starters and eight more included in the possible two-deep rotation.
That said, Tennessee’s depth chart leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Ten players are listed as potential starters for five spots on the offensive line. Ten more players are considered potential starters at the three defensive line positions.
While there’s still plenty of uncertainty on how this coaching staff plans to distribute playing time, plenty of freshmen already have made enough of an impression to warrant opportunities.
“We have a lot of guys that came here because they felt like they had the opportunity to play early at a big-time program, and a lot of them have put themselves in position to do that, so we’re excited about Saturday and having an opportunity to get this thing going,” Pruitt said Monday.
The depth chart’s freshman flavor shouldn’t come as a surprise.
These freshmen are part of Pruitt’s first full recruiting cycle since Tennessee hired him in December 2017. That class ranked 13th nationally and included four top-100 prospects according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
Tennessee is coming off two straight losing seasons, so returning starters had little cause to feel their jobs were secure and freshmen had reason to feel they could win immediate playing time.
Perhaps no freshman has performed as well as linebacker Henry To’o To’o (pronounced TOE-o TOE-o), a former top-50 recruit. To’o To’o already figured to have a major role in the opener and now may get even more responsibility with usual starting linebacker Daniel Bituli (knee) likely to miss the Georgia State game.
Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are former five-star prospects challenging for starting spots at offensive tackle. Cornerback Warren Burrell opened some eyes in the preseason and is part of a secondary that’s missing Bryce Thompson due to suspension and Baylen Buchanan due to a spinal condition.
Running back Eric Gray also has shown some playmaking ability during preseason practices and could get some carries behind incumbent starter Ty Chandler.
In the meantime, Tennessee’s upperclassmen have given the freshmen advice on what to expect in their first college game.
“We basically describe to them the difference is the crowd noise while you’re on the field instead of being in the stands,” fifth-year senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said. “It’s a big difference. You’re trying to communicate to each other and you can’t even hear each other with the 102,455 in our stadium.”
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