Tennessee is an early favorite for the SEC East title in 2016. The main reason? The youth on their roster from 2015 returns a year older and wiser.

The Volunteers’ 2015 recruiting class certainly did its share with contributions up and down the roster:

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PLAYERPOSITIONSTARTSGAMES PLAYED
Micah AbernathyDB012
Quinten DormadyQB07
Stephen GriffinDB09
Chance HallOL710
Jauan JenningsWR511
Jack JonesOL110
John KellyRB010
Darrin Kirkland Jr.LB1013
Kahlil McKenzieDL013
Darrell MillerDB03
Kyle PhillipsDL07
Quay PicouDL05
Quart’e SappLB04
Austin SmithLB113
Shy TuttleDL06
Preston WilliamsWR18
Joe YoungRB05

Darren Kirkland Jr. and Chance Hall were full-time starters as true freshmen by season’s end and five other members of the freshman class also made starts. In total, true freshmen accounted for 25 starts and 263 games from 17 players. In addition junior-college signees Alvin Kamara (698 rushing yards, 7 TD) and Justin Martin (18 tackles) were key contributors, appearing in every game.

The class was rated as the nation’s fourth-best by 247Sports, and with that level of first-year production, the group certainly lived up to the hype.

OFFENSIVE IMPACT

Aside from Kamara, who will reprise his role complementing Jalen Hurd in 2016, there were plenty of other newcomers who made an impact in 2015.

Hall settled in nicely at right tackle last season, and figures to be there — or over on the left side — this fall. Jack Jones made a start and got into 10 games as a guard last season. He played a little tackle in high school, too, so if Hall moves to the left, Jones might be a candidate to slide over to right tackle.

Jujan Jennings (14 catches, 149 yards) and Preston Williams (7 catches, 158 yards) both made starts at wide receiver and will look to carve out larger roles in 2016.

DEFENSIVE IMPACT

Kirkland started the last 10 games of the season at middle linebacker and finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles while adding 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception. He’ll be even better in 2016. Austin Smith started the bowl game on the outside, and will try to make that move permanent.

Khalil McKenzie (24 tackles) appeared in every game as a freshman and should grab a starting spot on the defensive line. Shy Tuttle, whose season was shortened by injury, and Kyle Phillips saw plenty of action last fall and will look to take the next step in 2016.

Ditto for Micah Abernathy and Stephen Griffin in the secondary.

REDSHIRTS

Four-star recruits T Drew Richmond and DE Andrew Butcher were the two most highly touted players to receive a redshirt last season. Another four-star end, Darrell Taylor also redshirted. In total, 18 players are listed on the provisional spring roster as redshirt freshmen.

OVERVIEW

Tennessee finished the season on a six-game winning streak, in part, because its young players gained experience from on-the-job training. Eighteen of the 22 players that started the bowl win over Northwestern are coming back, including 2015 newcomers Hall, Kirkland and Smith.

In addition to those players, the Class of 2015 provided depth all over the roster. Five more true freshmen were listed on the two-deep for the bowl game, and several more bolstered the special teams units.

Sometimes, classes that get a high grade from recruiting analysts don’t live up to the hype. If the 2015 season is any indication, this class is well on its way to justifying its top-five national ranking.