Tennessee Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season
Now that Tennessee's heralded 2014 class is all settled in on campus and preparing for fall camp, it's time to identify the players out of that group who can clamp down starting roles as freshmen.
Highly ranked recruiting classes full of talented players are business as usual in the SEC. For most schools, a half-dozen freshmen may see the field during the season, and a few standout players may even crack the two-deep depth chart.
But at Tennessee, the combination of a lack of depth, talent and speed means the Volunteers will rely heavily on their newcomers to fill holes in the offense, defense and special teams.
Not only will a sizable chunk of the 31 players who comprised the 2014 class see significant playing time this fall but a handful will also even start from day one.
Here are five Tennessee freshmen who have the playmaking abilities to be potential four-year starters for the Vols—beginning with their first career game on Aug. 31.
Josh Malone: Wide Receiver
Josh Malone's road to becoming a Tennessee Volunteer was far from certain.
In fact, throughout much of his standout career at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tennessee, Malone appeared headed anywhere other than Rocky Top, with Clemson, Georgia and Florida State making big pushes for the 5-star talent (ranking via Rivals).
After an in-home visit orchestrated by Jones that included a police-car convoy, the top-ranked player in the state announced his commitment to the Vols in December 2013.
Malone immediately turned heads during spring practice and lived up to his blue-chip status during Tennessee's 2014 Orange and White Game, hauling in three touchdowns and speeding past the Tennessee secondary for 181 total yards.
Tennessee high school football fans may also remember Malone nearly running down fellow freshman Jalen Hurd when Station Camp played Beech Senior High School last August. Hurd has elite speed himself, which makes Malone's acceleration all the more impressive.
It will be a tight battle heading into fall camp but watch for Malone to edge out Jason Croom to take the starting wide receiver position opposite Marquez North by the end of August.
Todd Kelly Jr.: Free Safety
Along with Vic Wharton and Jalen Hurd, Todd Kelly Jr. helped get the wheels rolling on Tennesee's 2014 class when he committed to head coach Butch Jones in March 2013.
After being a vocal leader on social media and helping recruit for the coaching staff during the past 16 months, Kelly now has a chance to become a leader in Tennessee's defensive backfield.
The Vols badly need speed at the safety position. Junior Brian Randolph has played admirably since his debut on Rocky Top, but his presence only accounts for half of the field.
Kelly's speed and football instincts make him an ideal candidate to start as a freshman at free safety opposite Randolph.
Should they give Kelly the nod, defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez may be rolling the dice, as freshmen are prone to making mistakes that can lead to big plays for the opposing team.
However, throwing Kelly into the fire from day one will not only make him a better player as the season progresses, but it will also make him a lethal defensive weapon by the time his sophomore season begins.
Ethan Wolf: Tight End
Although fellow freshman tight end Daniel Helm was rated higher by most of the nation's recruiting services, Ethan Wolf appears to be more SEC-ready and the more likely of the two to start this fall.
At 6'5" and nearly 250 pounds, Wolf looks like an undersized offensive lineman. His size makes him an immediate mismatch for any defensive back and even most linebackers, as he'll outweigh the majority whom he crosses paths with this fall.
With most of Tennessee's tight end corps banged up with injuries or struggling to establish themselves during practice, Wolf's only real competition to claim a starting position is his classmate Helm and senior Brendan Downs.
Neither Wolf nor Helm saw much action during the 2014 Orange and White Game, and there has been some concern that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian failed to incorporate the team's tight ends in the offense last season.
But with Wolf in the mix this fall—plus a whole host of new wide receiver weapons at the flanks—there's no doubt that the tight end position will play an integral part in Tennessee's offense in 2014.
Aaron Medley: Kicker
Aaron Medley is one of the few Tennessee freshmen who may have locked up a starting position the day he committed to the Vols.
After Michael Palardy had a breakthrough senior season in 2013, his graduation suddenly left a huge hole in Tennessee's special teams roster.
Redshirt senior kicker Derrick Brodus was famously retrieved from his couch to kick a field goal and several extra points during Tennessee's game against Middle Tennessee State University in 2011, as reported by GoVolsXtra's Grant Ramey.
Brodus is a solid backup option at the kicker position, but he has never established himself as the team's go-to guy when the game is on the line.
Fellow kicker and redshirt sophomore George Bullock was forced to sit out during his freshman season in 2012 after breaking his leg. Then, Palardy's resurgence meant he was also forced to watch from the sidelines during Tennessee's 2013 campaign.
That leaves the door wide-open for Medley to take the starting position as soon as fall camp begins.
A product of many training camps conducted by legendary Vols kicker James Wilhoit, Medley is simply Tennessee's best option for putting points on the board after touchdowns and during crucial short-to-medium-range field-goal opportunities.
Coleman Thomas: Right Tackle
After being a position of strength, experience and reliability for years, Tennessee's offensive line is full of relatively new faces in 2014.
With only a few dozen combined starts between them, the offensive linemen will need to grow up in a hurry to protect quarterback Justin Worley and to buy him time to allow plays to develop.
However, no player on the offensive line will be required to adapt to the speed of the college game and SEC football faster than freshman Coleman Thomas.
As an early enrollee, Thomas arrived on campus in January 2014. Having an extra semester and the ability to work out with the team during the winter and to take part in spring practices will be invaluable for Thomas once the season begins.
Thomas is far from a sure thing when it comes to securing a starting position at left tackle, and he will likely battle redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson and sophomore Dylan Wiesman for depth-chart supremacy.
The battle for right tackle will wage on throughout fall camp, but at 6'6" and 311 pounds, Thomas has the size to claim the position and to be a dominant force on the Tennessee offensive line for years to come.
Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.