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How Vols freshman forward Corey Walker can earn playing time

Vols freshman forward Corey Walker was one piece of Tennessee’s highly-touted three-man recruiting class that ranked in the top five of the 2020 recruiting class rankings.

The former four-star prospect has been the only one out of the three to not play this season, however. The pair of five-star freshmen guards that signed along with Walker, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, each made their first career start in Tennessee’s past two games against Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Walker has yet to receive an opportunity to play because of a broken toe that he suffered just before the season began. Factor in dealing with COVID regulations as a true freshman and he’s now playing catch-up to everyone else.

“It’s extremely hard to catch-up – when you missed what he’s missed,” Vols head basketball coach Rick Barnes said earlier this week. “He will have to continue to do what he’s doing and get himself in the kind of shape he needs to be in. He will need to get the speed and aggressiveness of what we play with, but it’s difficult.”

Walker played his senior year of high school basketball at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia. He did so after transferring from Bishop Snyder High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he averaged 16.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.4 blocks per game in 24 games as a junior.

He was considered 81st-best player in the country by 247Sports’ composite rankings. The rankings viewed him as the 12th-best power forward and the fifth-best player from the state of Virginia.

“Corey has dealt with a lot,” Vols assistant coach Desmond Oliver told the media Thursday. “Corey has missed some time because of COVID. Corey has come in and had to change his body. He’s still going through that process. He’s been injured.

“The reality is that he is at the bottom of our depth chart and he’s got to work his way into the rotation. That’s on Corey. That’s on him to see how many times Corey can get in the gym and work on his jump shot. Can he get his weight where it needs to be where now he’s one of the fastest guys at that position?”

Tennessee’s rotation isn’t an easy one to crack. The Vols currently have seven players averaging over 20 minutes a game, along with two players who average at least seven minutes. Barnes admitted when speaking to the media that it’s hard to play more than 10 guys in a game what would be considered quality minutes. He also recognized that if Walker proves he’s ready to do it, then it will happen.

“In the past, we’ve had guys who have done that,” Oliver said. “Admiral Schofield was in that position before and he attacked it. He found a way to become one of our best. So, if Corey is the guy that we think he is and the guy that we recruited – I do think he’s that guy – he’ll put the time in and he’ll work his butt off. You’ll see improvement if you’re at practice and hopefully that leads to getting on the floor in games and helping us some in games.

“The good thing about Coach (Barnes) is this, no matter where you are on the depth chart, if we’re playing in a game and we’re struggling and he looks to the bench and can see that a Drew Pember, Corey Walker, Uroš (Plavšic) or Olivier (Nkamhoua) can give us a five-minute window of success – he has no fear in giving those guys a chance.”

No. 10 Tennessee is back in action on Saturday evening when it takes on Vanderbilt inside of Thompson-Boling Arena at 6 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. The two teams were scheduled to play earlier this week on Tuesday night, but COVID issues within the Commodores’ program postponed the game.

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