The Vols have had at least one freshman standout breakthrough during the season every year under Butch Jones. In 2013. it was Marquez North. In 2014, there were several freshmen that made huge impacts, chief among them Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett. In 2015, it was Darrin Kirkland Jr. who stood out the most. And last season, Tyler Byrd and Baylen Buchanan made noise as true freshmen.
This year, Tennessee won’t be relying on freshmen as heavily as they did in 2014. But the Vols will likely have several freshmen contribute in all three phases of the game this season. And an early candidate for this year’s biggest standout freshmen is a bit of a surprise, at least from a recruiting standpoint.
Wide receiver Josh Palmer was considered just the 837th overall player in the country by the 247Sports Composite rankings coming out of high school. The 6-foot-2 receiver out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida held offers from some notable schools despite the lower ranking, however. Michigan, Nebraska, UCLA, and Penn State had all extended offers to Palmer. But the Vols were able to nab him after he decommitted from Syracuse in mid-January.
Now Palmer is a freshman for the Vols, and head coach Butch Jones has been highly impressed with how he’s stepped up in the absence of a veteran player.
“With (Josh Smith) being out, the individual that’s really stepped up has been true freshman Josh Palmer,” Butch Jones said after the Vols’ fall camp practice on Tuesday. “He’s gained those repetitions, and he’s putting his identity on video. He’s going to be an individual who’s going to play a lot of football for us this year.”
When asked what specifically has separated Palmer from the rest of the Vols’ young receivers, Jones responded with Palmer’s “consistency in everything.” He then went on to heap even more praise on the freshman.
“He has a skill set, a lot of natural ability,” Jones stated. “He works hard and is a very intelligent player. He’s able to maintain the volume of the playbook. I see him getting better and better. He’s a natural pass catcher and has very, very good ball skills and can run routes. That’s something we saw in recruiting.
“He was kind of a late bloomer. But again, you never know until they get here. He hasn’t missed one rep, and he continues to get better and better and better.”
Jones would go on to say that he expects to have Josh Smith back “here very soon,” but he’s been pleased with how Palmer has excelled with the increased reps he’s had in Smith’s absence. But according to Jones, Palmer isn’t the only young receiver who’s take advantage of the extra reps that are available.
“Josh Palmer has really taken advantage of those repetitions, as has Brandon Johnson,” Jones added. “I think Brandon Johnson is challenging for a starting position in the receiving corps. I think that’s a byproduct of increased repetitions.”
As a freshman last season, Johnson caught seven passes for 93 yards. The large majority of that production came against Tennessee Tech when he hauled in five receptions for 64 yards. The sophomore was a favorite to land a more prominent role in the offense this season, but it looks like he’ll have to hold off a determined freshmen for playing time in the Vols’ receiver rotation.
Tennessee has had positive results with freshman receivers over the last few years. And Josh Palmer is hoping to add his name to that track record of success.