Vol freshmen make their debut in season opener
The future of Tennessee football took the field late in the Vols’ matchup with Ball State on Thursday as notable freshmen made their college debuts.
Tennessee’s (1-0) 59-10 win over Ball State (0-1) on Thursday night not only kicked off the football season but also multiple freshmen’s collegiate careers. Here’s how some notable first-year players fared during their first game on Rocky Top.
#19 LEO Joshua Josephs
With no freshmen receiving a starting nod, Joshua Josephs was the first freshman to crack the rotation early in the first quarter. Josephs was quick to leave his mark by getting his hand on a pass attempt while rushing the quarterback just a few minutes into the game. He followed this by continuing to put pressure on the offense and disrupting things at the line of scrimmage. He would ultimately finish with two total tackles and half a tackle for loss.
Josephs’ early playtime proves that the coaching staff trusts him and expects him to be a valuable piece going forward. He was a 4-star prospect coming into the year and the seventh-best player in Tennessee’s class according to 247 Sports. However, he looks like possibly the most game-ready freshman who could see big minutes as the season progresses.
#10 WR Squirrel White
Squirrel White came into the year as just a 3-star recruit and the third highest-rated wide receiver in the Vols’ 2022 class. However, he has risen to the top of the freshman receiver rankings and saw early playtime against Ball State. White’s strongest attribute is his blazing speed. Tennessee looked to take advantage of this early by giving him the ball through screens in an attempt to get him into open space. He was targeted three times throughout the game and caught all attempts for a total of 25 yards and a long of 14.
White received most of his reps with the second-string offense but also was on the field for some snaps with the starters. This integration with the main offense in the opening game shows the excitement they have for White as a playmaker. In Heupel’s fast-paced and screen-heavy system, White will fit in perfectly as he develops. His future is surely bright and his opening game gave a positive glimpse of what is to come.
#24 RB Dylan Sampson
With Tennessee’s shallow depth at the running back position, the Vols needed one of the freshmen, Dylan Sampson or Justin Williams-Thomas, to step up. Despite being the lower-rated recruit, Sampson was the first to see the field out of the pair. Sampson entered with the second unit and impressed in his first collegiate drive. It was capped off with a touchdown rush after 36 total yards through 17 on the ground and 19 through the air. He went on to finish the night with 51 all-purpose yards in the limited time he saw.
Sampson will need to continue to improve as he will likely carry the load of third-string running back this season. He may even see more time if Jabari Small or Jaylen Wright goes down with an injury at some point throughout the year. This was an impressive opening game for him, though, and he looks ready to take on the challenging task.
#3 QB Tayven Jackson
Tayven Jackson came in as the third-string quarterback on Thursday. He played in just two drives late in the fourth quarter and both were unsuccessful. The first drive started with consecutive handoffs and then on third-and-four, the pocket collapsed and Jackson’s scramble attempt was halted at the line of scrimmage. Then, his second drive was over after one play when Justin Williams-Thomas fumbled following the exchange. This would end the night for Jackson as the Vols only had one more drive that featured players deeper on the depth chart.
Jackson’s performance could have gone a lot better but he also didn’t have much room to showcase his talent. He was never able to attempt his first pass and was tasked with designed handoffs in all other plays. However, he will likely see more action in Week 3 when Tennessee hosts Akron where fans will hopefully be able to get a better look at the freshman signal caller.
Other Offensive Players
Other notable offensive freshmen that entered the game were offensive lineman Addison Nichols and running back Justin Williams-Thomas. Nichols was the highest-rated recruit in the Vols’ 2022 class but saw limited action as the third-string center. He entered the game with Tayven Jackson in the fourth quarter and only received little activity. Despite being listed as a center, Nichols was tasked with work at left guard. He did okay in his first appearance but likely won’t see much action this season as he develops into a crucial piece for the Vols down the line.
Williams-Thomas also came onto the field with Jackson and the third unit. He saw three carries for just six yards and a fumble. Williams-Thomas didn’t have much running room on his snaps as he was behind an inexperienced reserve offensive line. He is currently listed as the fourth-string running back on the depth chart and likely won’t see much time in his freshman year. He still has the potential to become a key piece in the future for an explosive Vol offense, though.
Other Defensive Players
A heap of notable freshmen defensive players saw action throughout the night including James Pearce Jr., Jordan Phillips, Tyree West, Elijah Herring, Kalib Perry and Jourdan Thomas.
Thomas saw possibly the most action as he played special teams and even recorded a tackle with the unit. He also got time at safety later in the game.
Entering early in the fourth quarter were Pearce, Phillips, West and Herring. West and Herring were the only two to record tackles in the game along with quarterback hurries. Perry also entered later in the fourth quarter and quickly left his mark with two quarterback hurries.
This group of defenders didn’t see much action on Thursday but will be key pieces for a Tennessee team that is looking to build an effective defense in the coming years.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org