In this April 1, 2014 photo, Tennessee assistant coach Don Mahoney, right, monitors offensive linemen Coleman Thomas (55) and Brett Kendrick during spring practice in Knoxville. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Paul Ef
KNOXVILLE — The newcomers to Tennessee's football team are making quite a statement without speaking a word.
Tennessee hasn't made any of its early enrollees available to the media thus far in spring practice, but the first-year players already are making their presence felt. They're the products of a signing class ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple recruiting services.
Several newcomers are challenging for starting roles on a team lacking experience at key positions.
"It's where we're at in the program," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We can't hide it. It is what it is. But I'm encouraged by their youthfulness, their eagerness and the talent that we have and the talent we have coming in."
The newcomers getting much of the attention, because of the positions they play, are running back Jalen Hurd and receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson. They should instantly upgrade the big-play ability of Tennessee's offense.
Hurd should form a one-two punch in the backfield with senior running back Marlin Lane. Hurd and Malone are freshmen who were rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service.
Pearson, a transfer from Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., showed his big-play ability by making a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch with a defensive back grabbing his jersey during a spring one-on-one drill. Tennessee's sports information department put a clip of the catch on YouTube, where it's been viewed nearly 90,000 times.
"With Von and Josh, just getting them on the right page first was the big thing," senior quarterback Justin Worley said. "Now that they've kind of grasped the offense better, they've been able to go out there and play more fluidly and consistently for us. They've started making some big plays for us. It's good to have them here now instead of (arriving) in the summer."
They're not the only new faces who could play right away.
Tennessee must replace its entire starting offensive line from last season. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson is the only returning starter from last year's front seven on defense. The Vols are counting on newcomers to plug many of those holes.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of a program where you have to rely on so many newcomers at one or two particular positions," Jones said. "Usually your newcomers that are playing, (there are) a couple at one position, a couple at this position, a couple at that position. There's no secret (here). They're going to have to play at linebacker. They're going to definitely have to play on the defensive line and the offensive line. ... Throw in it's the SEC, which is an unforgiving conference up front."
On offense, freshman Coleman Thomas has been working as the first-team right tackle all spring. Garden City (Kan.) Community College transfer Dontavius Blair is competing with senior Jacob Gilliam at left tackle. Freshmen Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf have stood out at tight end, where the Vols didn't get much production last season.
On defense, the Vols need Butler (Kan.) Community College transfer Owen Williams and freshman Dimarya Mixon to contribute immediately on the line. Freshman cornerback Emmanuel Moseley has spent time working with the first-team secondary.
"They're going to bring a lot to the table," sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton said of the newcomers. "You can see that now during the spring. Guys are making plays on both sides, offense and defense. And it's going to roll over into the season."
Jones expects this highly touted recruiting class to continue paying dividends when the rest of the first-year players arrive this summer.
"The great thing is we'll welcome 18 newcomers in June," Jones said. "It will almost be like starting the process over again. A lot of them will have to play as true freshmen. They have no choice. That's where we're at."