Many young Vols have seen playing time due to attrition from the past couple of years. In some cases, players had to bypass redshirt opportunities and jump into action ahead of schedule.
This is a young team. There are sure to be learning curves throughout the upcoming season. The good news is that several freshman and sophomores have seen some action, albeit trial-by-fire.
Fans have become familiar with these names, but there are still some that fans might not recognize. Here are five names, including a true freshman, that could make an unexpected but significant impact this fall.
5. Cheyenne Labruzza
If this name rings a bell, it’s because Labruzza was hailed as a solid recruit in the 2017 recruiting class. The defensive back from Albany, Louisiana was a top-200 overall recruit. Most composites ranked him as a three-star, but there were some that had him listed higher. Despite modest rankings, many schools offered. Labruzza drew interest from the likes of Florida, Texas A&M and LSU. The redshirt freshman made the First-Year SEC Academic Honor Roll according to the university. The buzz around campus is that Labruzza is putting in work on and off the field. The rotation in the secondary is sure to be a revolving door, at least early in the season. The Vols open up with pass-happy West Virginia, followed by ETSU and UTEP. Look for Labruzza to get in the mix and see significant playing time.
4. Theo Jackson
Staying in the secondary, here is another defensive back that could work his way into the rotation. The in-state prospect was an All-State selection in Class 6A his senior year. Per Wes Rucker, Jackson was rated the fourth best overall prospect in Tennessee for 247Sports’ class of 2017. The Overton product saw plenty of action on special teams and limited action in the secondary. He really made a name for himself throughout spring practice and had an interception in the Orange and White game. According to Rucker, Jackson has several skills that make up for lack of size and speed. “Jackson also has some versatility, and he could get himself into the mix at nickel and perhaps get some reps at corner in a pinch.” The secondary unit has plenty of veterans with experience, but expect Pruitt to enhance the competition by rotating several guys. This position group could be a strength come season’s end.
3. Ryan Johnson
The offensive line will probably see the most improvement among all position groups. The 2017 Vols were one injury away from grabbing the biggest guy they could find in the student section and throwing him on the O-line. After an offseason of healing and adding pieces, this unit has the potential to be very effective, especially if Trey Smith is healthy. Johnson could play a huge role for this group as well. The Brentwood native stands at 6-foot-6 and weighs 300 pounds. Don’t let the measurements fool you. The redshirt sophomore is a utility knife. Johnson saw action in every game last season. He played on special teams and also contributed at guard and center. Johnson had a very solid spring. He was the starting center for the Orange and White game. With the exception of one penalty, he performed well. The former four-star prospect could play a vital role no matter the position. Having a consistent starter at center is the most important need to cover for this position group, outside of Smith’s health. The Vols haven’t had that luxury in a couple of years. Look for Johnson to compete with graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy to fill that void.
2. K’Rojhn Calbert
This inclusion involves hope of a feel good story by the end of the 2018 season. Calbert has seen his share of setbacks. The in-state product from McMinnville suffered two ACL injuries before he even stepped foot on campus. He had to redshirt last season due those preexisting ailments. The offensive lineman is the ultimate risk-reward player. He did not see much playing time in high school due to the aforementioned injuries. Recruiting aficionados will tell you that without these injuries, Calbert is an elite recruit. The redshirt freshman is listed at 6-foot-5, 316 pounds. He is very athletic for his size. He even played basketball in high school. If Calbert can stay healthy, he should see plenty of action in the rotation. He worked with the second team offense in the Orange and White game after getting off to a late start in the spring.
1. Jeremy Banks
There aren’t many true freshmen that can have an impact right away. Not every recruit is Trey Smith. But Jeremy Banks could very well be the surprise, not just of the 2018 class, for the 2018 season as a whole. It’s not so much that he will take carries away from Ty Chandler or Madre London. Expect Banks to capitalize on the limited touches he does get. Those carries will probably be short yardage and goal-line situations. 247Sports has Banks listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. The site also shows he rushed for over 1900 yards and punched in 32 rushing touchdowns while punishing defenders at Cordova (keep in mind, this is class 6A). It doesn’t take long for one to become fascinated by Banks’ potential. A few minutes of tape will induce excitement for Tennessee fans. If that’s not enough, try standing next to the guy. Banks had a big frame when he signed, but he has apparently taken advantage of conditioning in the offseason. 247Sports had him listed as a three-star prospect. When asked about the rating, Ryan Callahan stated “our guys put a lot of thought into his ranking” and added that the three-star listing “doesn’t mean they think he won’t be good, though.” The recruiting editor said “not any one thing” kept Banks from a higher grade.
This could be the steal of the 2018 class. Everyone knows about Alontae Taylor headlining the class. As good as the wide receiver is or could be, he will be competing in Tennessee’s toughest and deepest group. Look for Banks to develop into a bruiser and find his way onto the field. The best way to make a name for yourself at running back is to score touchdowns and move the chains. Expect Banks to make a splash doing just that. This video below might explain a rapid change in body composition.