Tennessee football: The 10 best freshmen over the past 5 years
Tennessee’s Class of 2021 took a beating following Jeremy Pruitt’s firing and Josh Heupel’s arrival. Letting 4-star linebacker Dylan Brooks and 4-star Cody Brown out of their letter of intent was the right thing to do, but it meant the Vols missed out on a couple of guys that could have helped right away.
Still, you could see new players like wide receiver Walker Merrill or offensive lineman William Parker get decent playing time this season. I would mention quarterback Kaidon Salter as a candidate as well, but he is still suspended after being arrested on drug possession charges.
Some newcomers were thrown into the fire immediately in recent years and performed well. Let’s take a look at the 10 best freshmen in the past 5 seasons.
10. QB Harrison Bailey (2020)
Throughout most of the 2020 season, Tennessee fans were calling for the 4-star quarterback to replace Jarrett Guarantano. Bailey eventually got his chance, playing in 6 games and making 3 starts. He threw for at least 1 touchdown in each of his final 3 games. He secured his first career win against Vanderbilt. Bailey is in a battle with Virginia Tech grad transfer Hendon Hooker for the starting spot this season.
Tennessee sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
9. WR Tyler Byrd (2016)
The Vols were loaded offensively, but Byrd still made a difference. He played in all 13 games, making 15 catches. Despite fighting for playing time on a team with Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings at his position, Byrd finished 6th on the team in receiving yards with 209.
8. OL Darnell Wright (2019)
The top recruit for the Vols in the Class of 2019, Wright played in 11 games on Tennessee’s offensive line, starting 7 of them.
7. K Brent Cimaglia (2017)
In 2017 Cimaglia split time as Tennessee’s placekicker with Aaron Medley. Cimaglia made 8-of-13 field-goal attempts, including all 6 under 40 yards. His longest was 51 yards. Cimaglia also added 4 touchbacks. An all-SEC performer as a junior, Cimaglia finished with 46 career field goals, good for 8th on the Vols’ all-time list.
6. LB Tyler Baron (2020)
In 2020, the Knoxville Catholic product played in all 10 games for the Vols, recording 21 tackles. Baron also had three tackles for loss, plus a sack against Florida. The linebacker position has been decimated by transfers, injuries and suspensions. Look for Baron to play a huge role this season.
5. RB Ty Chandler (2017)
In 2017, Chandler was one of the few bright spots in the worst season in program history. Chandler was 2nd on the team with 305 rushing yards, with 2 touchdowns. Chandler was also 6th with 108 yards receiving. He has transferred to North Carolina for his final season of college football.
4. OL Wanya Morris (2019)
The Loganville, Ga., native arrived on campus with a lot of 5-star hype, and he backed it up immediately. Morris started 12 of the Vols’ 13 games in 2019. As a team, the Vols rushed for nearly 300 yards against Vanderbilt, with many of those yards behind his blocks. He also started the Gator Bowl at left tackle. Morris transferred to Oklahoma after his sophomore year.
3. RB Eric Gray (2019)
The Nashville native got off to a slow start in 2019 but finished with a flourish. Gray was the Vols’ 2nd-leading rusher with 539 yards, despite seeing most of his playing time in the final weeks of the season. Gray ran for 366 yards in the last 2 games. That included a 246-yard performance in the finale against Vanderbilt, 5th-most all-time in program history. A month later, he was named MVP of the Gator Bowl after collecting 120 total yards. Like Morris, he has transferred to Oklahoma.
2. DB Alontae Taylor (2018)
The in-state product was a big contributor in 2018. He started his college experience playing wide receiver but moved to the secondary. Taylor became the first true freshman defensive back to start a season-opener for Tennessee since Cameron Sutton in 2013. His breakout game was in the victory at Auburn. Taylor made a career-high 7 tackles and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
1. LB Henry To’o To’o (2019)
In 2019, the Vols won 8 games, including a 6-game win streak to end the season. To’o To’o was a big reason for the success. He was the first true freshman to start the season-opener at linebacker since A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt did so in 2011. He played in all 13 games, starting 12 of them. He was 2nd on the team in tackles with 72 and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman Team. To’o To’o was at his best on a big stage, collecting a game-high 8 tackles in the Gator Bowl win over Indiana. Still in the transfer portal, it is doubtful that he will return to Tennessee for his junior year.