KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After three straight losses coupled with the abrupt departure by tailback Jalen Hurd, Tennessee was looking for a fresh start Saturday.
On a beautiful homecoming afternoon, a number of fresh faces delivered.
While sophomore tailback John Kelly stole the show in the Volunteers 55-0 throttling of Tennessee Tech, nine true freshmen from the Class of 2016 saw significant snaps Saturday.
Tennessee’s ballyhooed signee Nigel Warrior — a 4-star safety prospect — saw the most extensive playing time of his young career, leading the team in tackles with 7 including a stop for a loss.
Freshman cornerback Marquil Osborne recorded a sack and a pass breakup, while rookie running backs Carlin Fils-aime (8 carries for 27 yards and two touchdowns) and Jeremy Lewis (6 carries for 34 yards) both played well.
“It was exciting seeing a bunch of young guys go out there and get to play,” said junior linebacker Cortez McDowell, who snagged his first-career interception in the rout.
“It was great for us because we gave them a lot of energy, and they added back to the energy with a couple of big runs by a couple of different guys with big plays.”
Along with Warrior and Osborne, hulking linebacker Daniel Bituli finally saw snaps outside of short-yardage situations, finishing the afternoon with 2 stops. Cornerback Baylen Buchanan rebounded with a solid showing after several tough performances recently.
Offensively, Marquez Callaway, who just had his redshirt burned last week at South Carolina, flashed as a future playmaker and electric punt returner. The former U.S. Army All-American nearly scored a pair of touchdowns on two returns, breaking off a 52-yarder for a huge gain and then ripping off a 62-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“He’s very dynamic,” junior safety Rashaan Gaulden said.
“Any time I see a guy from Florida, I just kind of feel like he probably has the wheels and he probably has a very good skill set. He’s a really good player for us, and his role is only going to get bigger in the punt return game after what he did today.”
Tennessee’s two other Sunshine State wideouts were productive, too, as freshman Brandon Johnson finished second on the team with 64 receiving yards on 5 catches. Tyler Byrd chipped in 2 receptions for 37 yards.
It was just a blowout win over an FCS patsy, but Tennessee still got a solid glimpse of its future. Warrior, Bituli, Fils-aime, Osborne and others all received valuable reps, especially for a team ravaged by injuries this season.
“The level of play didn’t drop off,” senior quarterback Josh Dobbs said.
“It was time for them to get out there and make plays. I had 100% trust in them that they were going to go out there and make plays. It was really exciting to see guys like (Josh) Malone and Jauan (Jennings) catch touchdowns and see Brandon Johnson, Marquez Callaway and different guys enjoy themselves. Carlin Fils-Aime got in the end zone for his first touchdown and Marquez had his first punt return. It was a lot of fun to see those guys have success tonight.”
Tennessee true freshman to play against Tennessee Tech
S Nigel Warrior
LB Daniel Bituli
RB Carlin Fils-aime
RB Jeremy Lewis
CB Marquil Osborne
CB Baylen Buchanan
WR Marquez Callaway
WR Brandon Johnson
WR Tyler Byrd
OT Marcus Tatum