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Who Will Tennessee Football’s Most Important Newcomer Be?

Mike Matthews
Tennessee commit Mike Matthews. Photo via @Mike.Matthewss on Instagram.

After wrapping up the 2023 season with a victory over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, Tennessee has seen several new players join the roster in the first few months of the offseason through spring camp. Yes, Tennessee did lose players to graduation and the transfer portal, but head coach Josh Heupel and his staff have done a good job of replacing needs.

Tennessee lost both of their tight ends but added in a veteran from Notre Dame to go along with a highly-touted developing prospect.

The Vols secondary was gutted by the transfer portal but replenished with high school prospects and transfers for Willie Martinez’s group.

Tennessee had 14 recruits from the class of 2024 join the team for spring camp in April with seven more still to come this summer. Tennessee’s recruiting class included standout names such as five-star WR Mike Matthews and four-star safety Boo Carter. The Vols also added eight players through the portal, from skilled speedsters to stout linemen in the trenches.

But with the turnover at important positions this year, who will be Tennessee’s most impactful newcomer?

According to ESPN’s Billy Tucker, that answer lies with Matthews, the 19th highest-ranked recruit in Tennessee history according to 247 Sports’ rankings.

The 6-foot-1, 186-pound receiver immediately turned heads during spring camp. Matthews was praised by assistant coaches during the spring for his work ethic and the skillset that he brings to the table. While Tennessee does boast a few solid receivers, Matthews has been impressive during his first few months on campus.

“Tennessee returns its leading receiver from 2023, Squirrel White, along with veterans Bru McCoy and Dont’e Thornton Jr. So why pick a true freshman receiver? Because Matthews is simply that good,” Tucker writes for ESPN. “The five-star prospect is 6-foot-1 and almost 190 pounds with a wide catch radius and 4.48 verified speed. The slot position is integral for Josh Heupel’s offense and Matthews has the skill set to shine there.”

As Tucker continued on to say, one of the best aspects of Matthews’ game is his versatility. Matthews might start in one position to get him playing time and reps on the field, but that role could grow throughout the season and throughout his Tennessee career into one that plays in multiple spots.

Matthews is a good pick for the question. The freshman wide receiver flashed his abilities during the spring game to the tune of one reception for 63 yards and a touchdown on a pass from quarterback Gaston Moore.

More from RTI: Josh Heupel, Rick Barnes Roast Each Other in Hilarious Moment on Nashville Radio

Who are other good options for Tennessee’s most impactful newcomer?

For my money, I’m taking the newcomer that will likely have the least flashy season aside from the sporadic pancake blocks mixed into games. But his game will be immensely valuable for quarterback Nico Iamaleava.

Tennessee hauled in former LSU offensive tackle Lance Heard over the offseason, a player who was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in his lone season with the Tigers. Heard looks to be locked in as Tennessee’s starting left tackle this season for the Vols’ right-handed quarterback, setting up veteran John Campbell Jr. as Tennessee’s right tackle. Heard gives Tennessee a wall on the left edge, which will directly impact everything that happens with the Vols’ quarterback.

“One, the guy has unbelievable length and natural ability,” Tennessee OL coach Glen Elarbee said of Heard during spring camp. “So, protecting the passer is going to be a big improvement, and he’s just a big human. The ability to go move 4i’s in the run game, I felt like (Darnell Wright), that’s where he changed our run game a lot. He’d go and just dent a 4i. I feel like Lance is going to have that ability too.”

There’s a chance that Tennessee’s most impactful newcomer could come from the defensive side, too.

The Vols could be starting two transfer players in the secondary this year with standout former Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy and former MTSU safety Jakobe Thomas.

To see where Tennessee’s newcomers land in Rocky Top Insider’s depth chart projections, check them out by clicking here.

To see Billy Tucker’s full article for ESPN from Wednesday, click here.

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