The Vols will take the field against Appalachian State with more talent in orange and white than Vol fans have seen in over a decade. Fourth-year coach Butch Jones has recruited some of the best talent in the nation to Knoxville, and the Vols’ player development has pushed many of those early recruits into budding stars.
However, the familiar faces won’t have to make all the plays Thursday night to beat the Mountaineers. Here are some players that could have a coming-out party when Tennessee takes the field for the first time this season.
Tyler Byrd, Freshman wide receiver
Byrd, ESPN’s No. 1-rated athlete from the 2016 signing class, was quick to make a good impression on Rocky Top. Tennessee coaches and players alike have raved about his ability since he first stepped onto the practice field in orange and white. His natural abilities as a player outside the hashes are undeniable, and those talents will be put to good use early. Josh Dobbs’ inconsistencies as a passer are well-documented, but with injuries and drops plaguing the wide receiver the past few seasons, he hasn’t had a ton of help. Byrd is a physical freak that should slide into the receiver rotation and provide a spark early in the season.
Baylen Buchanan, Freshman cornerback
Much like Byrd, Buchanan has been turning heads of those around the Tennessee program. However, Buchanan was just the 688th ranked player in the 2016 signing class (according to 247Sports.com). Jones said some coaches on staff compared Buchanan to All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton, who also started out as a three-star freshman when he stepped onto the Vols’ campus. Buchanan seemed to prove that high praise when he was the first newcomer to have his black helmet stripe removed, something all first-year players wear until a veteran player decides it can be removed. Buchanan plays good technique and will need to help the only defensive position group with uncertainty — the defensive backs.
Darrin Kirkland Jr., Sophomore linebacker
Although most Vol fans are plenty familiar with the freshman All-SEC linebacker, his play largely goes unnoticed to the rest of the country because of his All-SEC teammate, Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Kirkland, who played in all 13 games of the 2015 season but only started in 10 of them, already receives praise as one of the top linebackers in the SEC. His instincts always bring him toward the ball. Kirkland had 66 tackles last year, good enough for fourth on the team. He should be making plenty more this year behind a fierce defensive line that should give offenses fits this year.
Drew Richmond, Redshirt freshman left tackle
After redshirting his first year on campus, former five-star offensive tackler recruit Drew Richmond got the nod to start at left tackle in front of freshman Marcus Tatum. Some fans thought Richmond was talented enough to start at tackle as a freshman last year, but Tennessee used a solid year from Brett Kendrick to give Richmond a year to learn more ins and outs of the college game before throwing him to the SEC wolves. Richmond is the only offensive lineman who isn’t a returning starter, but he’s earned the respect of his fellow linemen and should help keep running back Jalen Hurd and quarterback Josh Dobbs off of the ground most of the year.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics