Aug 28, 2013
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- The environment at Neyland Stadium is intimidating by design.
Dating back to the original plans drawn up by the General himself, the venue has been built to be imposing before a fan ever takes a seat. Turn on the video board, crank up the speakers, cut on the lights and invite 102,455 to the party and it will make the hair stand up on the neck of anyone that enters.
But that intimidation isn't limited to the opponents. When the Pride of the Southland Marching Band opens the "T" Saturday night, 27 true freshmen will be among the group that emerges from the Peyton Manning Locker Room. 18 redshirt freshmen will run out hoping to see the first action of their Volunteer careers.
With the young players being counted on so heavily, the UT upperclassmen have done their best to prepare their teammates for the environment they will see.
"It's going to be a loud surrounding," sophomore wide receiver Pig Howard said. "So I just tell them to lock in mentally, just stay focused and remember who you play for."
Tennessee has three freshmen listed as starters or co-starters on the depth chart for the season opener, including Howard's position mates Marquez North and Josh Smith, and defensive back Cameron Sutton. North and Smith would be the first true freshmen receivers to start an opener at receiver since Marsalis Teague in 2009. Sutton would be the first DB to start the first game of his Vol career since Justin Coleman in 2011.
The distractions around the stadium can play into a freshman's mind his first time out. Junior Marlin Lane remembers being unable to look away from the videoboard during his first game.
"They're going to see a lot of orange and they're going to have to be focused," Lane said. "I know my freshman year, I focused on the Jumbotron a lot because it was so big. It took me awhile to get over that. In Neyland, you're always going to hear that noise and have those distractions, but you have to get you mind set and locked in."
Three other true freshmen: offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman, and defensive backs Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford are listed in the Vols' two-deep as backups. In anticipation of the roles the young players would play, Butch Jones opened up a Saturday practice to fans to help give the freshmen a glimpse of what they could expect for the opener. 39,000 Tennessee fans helped the cause by piling into Neyland Stadium that night.
"I thought there were some great, great teaching lessons for our football team," Jones said after the open practice. "For a lot of those guys - walking out of the tunnel and hearing the band play and the excitement - that's the first time they've experienced that. I thought that was a great atmosphere to develop this football team."
Howard agreed that the atmosphere can be intimating, but after the first few hits have been absorbed or delivered the nerves go away and it's back to just playing football.
"They may have a little nerves come out in the first half, but I think once things get going and settle down, they're going to mentally tune in and know what we need to do as a team," Howard said. "They came so far through camp and they're steadily improving."
For Lane, seeing the fans is the gameday experience he looks most forward to sharing within his freshman teammates, and he hopes to repay those fans with the effort Tennessee puts on the field.
"It means a lot to us to have the fans come out to see what Team 117 is all about," said Lane. "We've got to go out there and give them what they're looking for."