Either Tennessee hit a home run with its 2014 recruiting class or the Volunteers are playing with fire. Either way, the Volunteers are taking a big gamble with their freshmen.
Head coach Butch Jones has played 71 percent (22 of 29) of his true freshmen — an incredible stat that some coaches might be scared to advertise for fear that future opponents might try to take advantage of inexperienced players. Jones, however, has taken the opposite approach and is using the fact as a recruiting tool.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 3, 2014
The official Tennessee football Twitter account has tweeted out several stats about how many freshmen have played, and behind the scenes, the Volunteers' staff is not shy about telling recruits they are young and need more talented prospects to play early and add depth to an improving roster.
Tennessee assistant athletic director Jason Yellin appeared almost proud to share how many freshmen have played this year.
"We have played the most in the nation, 22,” Yellin said in an email. "For comparison, last year’s high was 18 by UCLA. We have started seven so far and could potentially start two more on Saturday at Georgia."
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 22, 2014
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 13, 2014
Jalen Hurd, the Vols' leading rusher, defensive lineman Derek Barnett and safety Todd Kelly Jr. each have made an impact and Jones is hoping Class of 2015 prospects, such as five-star players Shy Tuttle and Tim Settle, will want to play alongside his young standouts.
Schools are telling Settle, the No. 15 player in the ESPN 300, that he could make the same type of impact as a freshman.
“Tennessee and some other schools like West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and some other schools have told me I have a chance to play as a freshman,” Settle said. “They are just telling me that I have the same talent or more physical ability to do what their starters are doing now and I have the ability to execute as a freshman."
Settle, who said Penn State, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Tennessee are standing out to him, will visit Virginia Tech this weekend. Tennessee will also likely receive a visit from the talented defender, but nothing has been set.
For a team such as Alabama, which has signed the No. 1 recruiting class three years running, it might not be as simple to advertise early playing time. But for schools such as Tennessee and Kentucky, the proof is on the field. With coaching changes for both schools in the last few years and major holes to fill on the rosters, the teams needed immediate help, and it appears they have found it.
Kentucky has played nine true freshmen and they have made the most of their opportunities. Garrett Johnson received SEC freshman of the week honors after making six receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Florida in Week 3. True freshmen have accounted for eight of the Wildcats' 13 total touchdowns this year.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 15, 2014
ESPN 300 athlete Ryan Davis, a Florida native, has Kentucky as one of his top schools along with Florida and Florida State. The four-star prospect said Kentucky assistant coach Chad Scott has been pointing to Johnson as the type of player they would expect Davis to become.
“Coach Scott has been telling me that I could play right away and that they need more Florida players there. He said, ‘You see how Garrett Johnson has come in and taken over? He’s the best playmaker on the team.’ He said I could do the same thing and I could be even better than what he’s doing."
Kentucky and Tennessee have both had success so far this season with their young talent, but it’s a risky gamble. If the young players struggle — or worse, if their inexperience results in several losses -- the recruiting strategy could backfire. After all, recruits pay close attention to wins and losses.
If early playing time was the lone factor for every recruit, players wouldn’t care where they went to college as long as they could play early. In reality, they want to play early and compete for championships.
But the gamble has so far paid off for the Volunteers and Wildcats.