KNOXVILLE — At times this month, Tennessee's football coaches have trotted four freshmen out onto the field at once to play on the defensive line.
Steve Stripling has been a defensive line coach for more than two decades, but this is new for the Volunteers' assistant.
Tennessee's defensive rotation up front is spotted with freshmen and other first-year players, and it's up to Stripling to get them ready to be able to contribute immediately, whether it's spot snaps, situational action or even bigger roles.
"We're wearing the black stripes out there, and sometimes you look at it and it's all black stripes," he said following Friday afternoon's practice. "I think obviously that's encouraging for the future, but it's a little bit shocking right now in the present. I'm excited."
What early enrollees Dimarya Mixon and junior college transfer Owen Williams flashed during spring practice and the start freshman defensive ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix have had in training camp are largely the reason the usually upbeat 60-year-old is looking forward to molding this group.
Still, it's daunting to have to rely on that many freshmen, and though the Vols' first unit appears to be set with some older players, the reality is that the newcomers will have to play, which is why Stripling has each new lineman sitting next to a veteran in team meetings.
Tonight's scrimmage inside Neyland Stadium will be a big litmus test -- Stripling believes it'll "open their eyes a little bit" -- with playing time up for grabs as the staff continues to evaluate the personnel on a new-look defensive front.
"I think the big thing is that you're managing reps, that you're getting them on film and you're able to evaluate the young guys," Stripling said. "We have a rep count for every day so we're ensuring the young men are out there getting enough reps to be evaluated and enough reps to make it justified for them not being able to execute or being able to execute."
So far, the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett and the 6-4, 275-pound Hendrix -- two consensus four-star recruits -- have generated some early buzz, and those two look the part physically with an usual blend of size and athletic ability.
"That's what you want, to get as big as you can get while retaining your athleticism," Stripling said. "I think that's two examples of two really big bodies that are very athletic."
While those two, along with third-year sophomore LaTroy Lewis and sophomore Jaylen Miller, are in the mix at end, Mixon, Owen Williams and freshman Michael Sawyers have gotten second-team looks at defensive tackle behind Jordan Williams and Danny O'Brien.
"Mixon, I think it took a few days for him to get back to his spring standard, but the last few days he's been playing around and running like the Mixon that we know," Stripling said.
"Owen is always going to be a work in progress with his conditioning level and those type things, but again, when his motor's on and he's doing things right, he's pretty powerful."
Tennessee's X-factor up front might be Trevarris Saulsberry, a big defensive tackle at 6-4 and 296 pounds. He was coming on early last season when a knee injury at Oregon basically wiped out his season, and he missed spring practice after shoulder surgery. Limited in practice Thursday, Saulsberry was back at work Friday.
"We're limiting his reps," Stripling said. "It's a daily rep count for him, but you know, physical-wise and athleticism, he's got it. He's just got to learn to play with confidence."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...