The five true freshmen listed as potential starters on an official depth chart released Friday earned significant playing time with the first-team units Saturday during the Volunteers’ final preseason scrimmage.
Wide receiver Marsalis Teague and safety Janzen Jackson were among the newcomers from Kiffin’s highly touted first signing class who started the scrimmage. Defensive tackle Montori Hughes, tailback Bryce Brown, wide receiver Nu’Keese Richardson and cornerback Mike Edwards, four other freshmen considered starters or co-starters, also worked extensively with the No. 1 units.
“I thought we signed a number of players that would have significant roles as freshmen for us, and with injuries it’s become more significant, especially at the receiver spot,” Kiffin said. “There are a lot of young guys on (the depth chart), but that’s good. That’s good for the competition. It shows that these guys have worked really hard.”
A few of the freshmen, who were allowed to talk to media Saturday for the first time in nearly three weeks, suggested that the number of newcomers projected to start shows something about Kiffin, too.
“He kept his word,” said Jackson, who started Saturday at free safety over junior Dennis Rogan. “He promised me that I would get a chance to start.”
Brown said he’s not surprised that Kiffin and his staff are giving freshmen a chance to play immediately.
“I never doubted the coaches at all when they said they were going to come in here and give us an opportunity,” said Brown, who was cleared Wednesday to play in the season opener after an NCAA investigation into his eligibility.
Richardson, the only freshman to sit alone atop a depth chart, is listed as a starter in the Vols’ injury-depleted receiving corps and is projected to be the team’s top punt returner, although he fumbled a punt Saturday.
“Every day us freshmen, we talk about that, how everybody’s contributing and helping out,” Richardson said. “Everything’s coming together. I’m just glad that all of us got an opportunity to get on the field.”
Kiffin continued to heap praise on several of the freshmen. He said Jackson, who is expected to start on four different special teams units, was “phenomenal on defense” and “the best special teams player” in last week’s scrimmage. Kiffin offered similar compliments for Brown, Teague, Oku and Richardson.
“I do think we have them as ready as possible,” Kiffin said. “I think we still understand that doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect. They’re still freshmen.”
The limited-contact, situational scrimmage served as a final dress rehearsal for the upcoming season opener. Just like the Vols' previous scrimmage, it started at 12:21 p.m., the scheduled kickoff time for their game next week against Western Kentucky.
Players and coaches also went through their entire game-day routines, down to the pregame meal and team meetings, although several starters nursing minor injuries did not practice.
The first and second teams on both sides of the ball worked against scout teams.
“It’s a very mental day, with a ton of situations,” Kiffin said. “We came up with every scenario that could possibly come up in a game, and so that was really good for our players.”