By Josh Ward
The second-year leap. It’s an annual conversation. Which sophomores are ready to make a big impact on the football team? Tennessee football has a long list of candidates from the 2022 class.
With key leaders from last year’s team gone, the opportunity is… now here for several rising sophomores to take advantage.
Here’s a look at five second-year players who have created a buzz for Tennessee footballduring spring practice.
RB Dylan Sampson
You might remember Sampson from last fall. He showed the kind of burst that any running backs coach covets.
Sampson’s 42- and 15-yard runs in the second half against Missouri helped end the Tigers’ comeback attempt in Knoxville.
Sampson finished the Vols’ regular season with an 80-yard touchdown run. He has big-play ability, and Tennessee’s offense knows how to use it.
With veteran running backs Jabari Small sidelined and Jaylen Wright limited during spring, Sampson has a chance to show his improvement.
That improvement has to include pass protection.
Tennessee’s coaches know about Sampson’s athleticism. If they trust his ability to protect the quarterback, Sampson will see an increased role in the Vols’ offense.
DL Tyre West
Tennessee would love to see West make a leap in his sophomore season.
The Vols need help replacing LaTrell Bumphus, a valuable senior on last year’s defensive line. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound West is a good candidate to fill part of the void.
West played in 10 games as a freshman, recording two tackles for a loss and a sack against Vanderbilt.
West was a highly-touted player in the 2022 class thanks to his size and pass-rush ability.
Head coach Josh Heupel mentioned West among players who impressed during Saturday’s scrimmage.
With coaching from Rodney Garner, West should be ready to help the Vols’ defense in the fall.
Edge Joshua Josephs and James Pearce
I’m cheating here and combining Josephs and Pearce.
Both players will play a big role in how well Tennessee’s defense plays this fall.
The Vols have to replace Byron Young, an All-SEC defender who led Tennessee with seven sacks last season.
No other Tennessee defender recorded more than three sacks in 2022. Young leaves big shoes to fill.
Josephs and Pearce have the ability to help.
Josephs showed his talent as a reserve edge rusher last fall. Pearce has the physical makeup to make plays in the SEC.
Word from UT’s campus is that Pearce has matured.
Someone who’s probably helped with that: Robert Ayers Jr. The former Vol defensive lineman is back on campus as a graduate assistant.
Ayers’ experience at Tennessee, where developed into a first-round NFL draft pick, offers a perfect example for Josephs and Pearce.
Watch out for those two players the rest of the spring.
OL Addison Nichols
Nichols has seen increased reps at center with Cooper Mays sidelined during the last several practices.
Nichols isn’t expected to start this fall. But if Mays were to go down this fall, Tennessee needs to have a fill-in ready to go.
Jerome Carvin was that guy in the last two seasons. He’s gone, which makes the backup center position an important one to figure out.
Nichols impressed coaches with his ability as a freshman. He had Heupel predicting Nichols will “be a great player” at Tennessee.
But there’s a difference between impressing them in practice and earning their trust for a game.
Nichols, a former four-star prospect in the 2022 class, can play center or guard for the Vols.
A big spring could have him ready to help if needed this fall.
WR Squirrel White
I wasn’t even sure if White was eligible for this list.
White appeared to take a leap in the Orange Bowl when he helped fill in for Jalin Hyatt.
White caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown against Clemson. He showed chemistry with quarterback Joe Milton.
White is a natural make-a-leap candidate.
But he isn’t guaranteed a starting position in this offense.
Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton is an option in the slot, and veterans Ramel Keyton and Bru McCoy are going to play.
So White has to continue to compete and improve.
Expect him to do that. His speed and Heupel’s offense create a dangerous threat for opposing defenses.
White AND Thornton on the field together would give opposing defenses a lot to worry about thanks to their speed and big-play ability.
White will play for Tennessee football this fall. The spring will help coaches figure out how much.