KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The newcomers to Tennessee's football team are making quite a statement without speaking a word.
Tennessee hasn't made any of its early enrollees available to the media thus far in spring practice, but the first-year players already are making their presence felt. They're the products of a signing class ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple recruiting services.
Several newcomers are challenging for starting roles on a team lacking experience at key positions.
"It's where we're at in the program," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We can't hide it. It is what it is. But I'm encouraged by their youthfulness, their eagerness and the talent that we have and the talent we have coming in."
The newcomers getting much of the attention, due to the positions they play, are running back Jalen Hurd and receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson. They should instantly upgrade the big-play ability of Tennessee's offense.
Hurd should form a one-two punch in the backfield with senior running back Marlin Lane. Hurd and Malone are freshmen who were rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service.
Pearson, a transfer from Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., showed his big-play ability by making a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch with a defensive back grabbing his jersey during a spring one-on-one drill. Tennessee's sports information department put a clip of the catch on YouTube, where it's been viewed nearly 90,000 times.
"With Von and Josh, just getting them on the right page first was the big thing," senior quarterback Justin Worley said. "Now that they've kind of grasped the offense better, they've been able to go out there and play more fluidly and consistently for us. They've started making some big plays for us. It's good to have them here now instead of (arriving) in the summer."
They're not the only new faces who could play right away.
Tennessee must replace its entire starting offensive line from last season. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson is the only returning starter from last year's front seven on defense. The Volunteers are counting on newcomers to plug many of those holes.