Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee football is hoping to follow up its breakout 2022 season with another big fall in Josh Heupel’s third season in Knoxville.
The Vols have plenty of talent but are still looking to build depth as Heupel and his staff attempt to make up for the decimated roster they inherited.
Some of that depth will come from the Vols’ 2023 signing class— Heupel’s second full recruiting class at Tennessee. Tennessee’s 2023 signing class was its best in a number of years, ranking as a fringe top 10 class and as the nation’s No. 10 signing class according to the 247sports team rankings.
But which Vols are most likely to play a major role this fall? Let’s take a look at the five most likely freshman to factor for Tennessee football this season.
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5. Cornerback Rickey Gibson II
Tennessee landed the four-star Gibson out of Trussville, Alabama in its 2023 recruiting class. Gibson early enrolled in January and went through spring practice where he impressed with his athleticism and frame.
There’s tremendous opportunity for someone to step up and earn a starting job at corner for Tennessee. The Vols’ pass defense was pitiful a season ago and how much improvement they can make is one of the biggest storylines entering fall practice.
Still, Tennessee has a lot of depth at corner the question is just how high is the quality of the depth. Gibson will have to beat out a number of more seasoned players to earn serious playing time at corner and defensive back’s coach Willie Martinez is prone to playing more experienced players.
4. Running Back Cam Seldon
Seldon showed off his obvious talent and diverse skillset in the spring game. Tennessee landed the fringe top 100 recruit from Virginia over Penn State and Virginia Tech.
The debate on Seldon is whether he ends up at receiver or running back. He’s beginning his career at running back and showed enough in spring practice to prove he can stick there.
Seldon won’t start the season ahead of any of Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright or Dylan Sampson on the depth chart, but running back depth demands at least four players. If any of those players are sidelined with an injury, Seldon will likely get an opportunity on game days.
3. Defensive End Caleb Herring
It’s hard to project a defensive lineman playing a major role in their freshman season but Herring’s size and length jump off the page and he early enrolled and went through spring practice to shorten the learning curve.
Tennessee isn’t devoid of pass rushers but there is an opportunity there with Byron Young off to the NFL. Roman Harrison and Josh Josephs will definitely start the season ahead of Herring at LEO. However, no one else is clearly ahead of the top 100 recruit.
Herring will likely get chances this fall in Tennessee’s defensive line rotation to make an impact.
2. Tight End Ethan Davis
What to expect from Davis was hard to tell after he missed the vast majority of his senior high school season with a broken collarbone. But the Atlanta native was extremely impressive all spring and capped it off by being on the of the stars of the spring game.
Tennessee has less depth at tight end than any other position on the team. Jacob Warren is back and McCallen Castles transferred in from UC-Davis. But Davis is at worst the third tight end on the roster and could easily move up to second.
Davis is the most talented pass catcher in the room and should earn opportunities as a freshman.
1. Linebacker Arion Carter
The Smyrna, Tennessee native committing to Tennessee over Alabama was one of the biggest recruiting wins of Josh Heupel’s tenure. Carter more than looked the part during spring practice.
The Vols lost three of their top four linebackers— Jeremy Banks, Juwan Mitchell and Solon Page III— from a season ago. Aaron Beasley is back, Tennessee added BYU transfer Keenan Pili and the Vols have some more young talent at linebacker.
Still, Carter’s ceiling is as high as anyone and could easily play his way into the two deep at a position Tennessee frequently substitutes.
Quarterback Nico Iamaleava
Tennessee fans better hope Iamaleava isn’t on this list by the end of the season. The five-star quarterback won’t start this season unless Joe Milton III performs poorly or gets injured. Both would be far from ideal.
Cornerback Jordan Matthews
The same opportunity available to Gibson is there for Matthews too. The four-star also enrolled early and was even higher ranked than Gibson. The tools are there for Matthews. Can he put it all together as a freshman?
Defensive Tackle Daevin Hobbs
Tennessee beating out Alabama and Georgia for the top 50 recruit was a massive recruiting win but very few defensive tackles make an impact as a freshman. Still, Hobbs is talented and Da’Jon Terry transferring to Oklahoma affords him an opportunity.
Running Back DeSean Bishop
Seldon seems ahead of the local Bishop but the former Karns standout more than held his own in his first spring practice. Bishop isn’t high on the depth chart but is likely a few injuries away from being in the rotation.