KNOXVILLE – Although Tennessee’s season is five games old, Nigel Warrior saw a new version of the Vols last Saturday against Georgia.
“I feel like we came out of our shell,” the senior safety said. “I think more of the players, my teammates, we opened up a little bit, we played with more heart. That brought out more personality.”
Warrior was talking about a football game – specifically a 43-14 loss to SEC rival Georgia at Neyland Stadium – but sounded like he was describing a successful pledge party. Perhaps the two dissimilar events are joined by fact that Tennessee (1-4, 0-2 SEC) already has played 18 true freshmen and four have started three or more games.
Warrior equated more personality with an improved trust factor, which doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes experiences and it takes time in order to trust someone,” he said, “to actually give your all and give your love to someone.”
Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1), which visits Neyland on Saturday, presumably is farther along in terms of such familiarity. UT coach Jeremy Pruitt perused the Bulldogs’ two-deep roster and noted the veteran presence, particularly on offense, where 19 of those 22 spots are manned by either seniors or juniors.
State’s defense isn’t callow by comparison. Seventeen of the 22 two-deep spots are filled in the same manner.
“It’s an experienced football team,” Pruitt said.
Mississippi State’s roster suggests that second-year coach Joe Moorhead is benefiting from a successful predecessor in Dan Mullen. He won 69 games in nine seasons there and had the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 nationally in both major polls during a magical 2014 season. State won eight games during Mullen’s final season in 2017. He left before the TaxSlayer Bowl to become Florida’s coach
The last time a Mississippi State running back fumbled was during Mullen’s final season, specifically Nov. 18, 2017, at 7 minutes, 26 seconds of the first quarter at Arkansas. That’s when Nick Gibson coughed up the football and the Razorbacks recovered.
Since then, Bulldogs running backs have strung together 460 consecutive carries without a fumble. Junior running back Kylin Hill has fumbled just once in 303 career carries and he recovered the bobble.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ defense, a 56-23 mauling at Auburn on Sept. 28 notwithstanding, has continued a streak of recording at least one takeaway to 21 consecutive games. It’s the longest active streak of its kind in the nation. Ironically, it began in the same 2017 game at Arkansas.
Trends of this nature constitute winning football. Or at least they don’t enhance the chances of losing. Tennessee would take both and squeeze them like winning lottery tickets.
In the meantime, the Vols are all but taking roll to find linebackers. Attrition has ravaged the position with Will Ignont and Shanon Reid leaving the program last month and Jeremy Banks being dismissed last week. On UT’s depth chart, two freshmen (Henry To’o To’o and Aaron Beasley) and a redshirt freshman (J.J Peterson) comprise the three-deep alignment at one linebacker position.
Furthermore, they are imploring fellow freshman Brian Maurer, who’s in line for a second start at quarterback, to be louder behind center and clap with more vigor to avoid false start penalties.
“Some of that is that for the first time he’s in the moment,” Pruitt said. “He’s seeing what folks are doing in the back end. Is this backer coming? Do I need to do something here? Where is the safety at? He’s doing all of that and maybe forgot the simplest thing, which is having some force when he claps his hands.”
Another freshman, offensive lineman Wanya Morris, became the fifth first-year player on Tuesday to be interviewed by the media. Freshmen used to be off-limits for these sessions. Now they’ve become spokesmen for both the present and the future.
Morris seemed more interested in perfecting his technique than showing his personality. It’s out of respect for Mississippi State’s elders.
“They have experience; they know what they’re doing,” he said. “So I’m going to have to be on my Ps and Qs.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.