Linebacker Arion Carter always had a chance to be among the busier freshmen on Tennessee’s 2023 football team.
An injury to Keenan Pili in the opening win over Virginia has resulted in Carter being the busiest.
The 6-foot-1, 227-pounder from the Nashville suburb of Smyrna has averaged 24 snaps a game for the 4-1 Volunteers, who are off this weekend before hosting Texas A&M on Oct. 14. Sophomore Elijah Herring replaced Pili in the starting lineup, with Carter experiencing the ripple effect as well.
Pili’s return date from the upper-body injury sustained against the Cavaliers is not known.
“The mindset stayed the same,” Carter said this week in a news conference. “From the beginning, I had the mindset of coming in and being ready to play, because it’s always the next man up.
“You hate to see such a great guy like Keenan go down, but I prepared the same every day, and my mindset stayed the same.”
Carter was a four-star signee out of Smyrna High School and was rated the nation’s No. 183 prospect overall in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
Through his first five college contests, Carter has compiled 13 tackles and one tackle for loss. Three of his stops and his one tackle for loss occurred in last Saturday’s 41-20 defeat of South Carolina, which he considers his best outing yet from an assignment standpoint.
“I felt like I was flying around with less thinking and more reacting,” Carter said.
Most of Tennessee’s top freshmen have yet to make an impact.
Five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava played a handful of snaps against Virginia and the University of Texas at San Antonio, while four-star receiver Nathan Leacock and four-star tight end Ethan Davis have played even less and have yet to record any stats. Four-star running back Cameron Seldon also saw action against Virginia and UTSA, tallying three carries for 5 yards.
Touted four-star edge rusher Chandavian Bradley has yet to make his mark, but four-star defensive lineman Daevin Hobbs has racked up 11 tackles and three-star linebacker Jeremiah Telander has eight. Telander, a 6-2, 228-pounder from Gainesville, Georgia, had two tackles against the Gamecocks.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys playing on that second level,” Vols coach Josh Heupel said. “They are continuing to grow and compete, and they played at a really high level the other night. We’re going to need those guys in that room, and I’m pleased with their growth and development.”
A happy return
Tennessee’s fifth game of the season was the first for senior center Cooper Mays, who had a hernia procedure a couple of days into preseason camp and had been working his way back since.
The Vols had both productivity and balance against the Gamecocks, amassing 477 yards with 239 through the air and 238 on the ground.
“It felt good being out there with my teammates,” Mays said. “That was the hardest part of being out, so being out there and finding a little bit of rhythm was good. I’ve been a little bit sore this week, but I’m getting ready for next week.”
Said sixth-year senior left tackle and Miami transfer John Campbell: “It was great having Coop back. He had a big impact.”
Mays warmed up before the Florida and UTSA games but didn’t play, and the uncertainty of his return was a topic of conversation on campus.
“People would ask, but I’m not out too much,” Mays said. “I’m pretty busy.”
Hard early days
Fifth-year senior receiver Bru McCoy is less than a week removed from his fractured and dislocated ankle suffered in the second quarter against South Carolina.
Heupel said these are often the toughest days.
“When you invest and no longer have that opportunity after having an injury like he had, it’s hard,” Heupel said. “It’s devastating, and you feel like it’s an opportunity that no longer exists. The early days of this are hard, and I think it’s the hardest part of being an athlete.
“You’re constantly pushing towards something, and then you have an injury for however long it is, and you’re kind of in no-man’s land. The recovery process is the next-best thing, because you’re working towards something.”
Tennessee announced Thursday that Neyland Stadium will be checkerboarded for next week’s game against the Aggies.
Neyland had the unique look last season for the 38-33 win over Florida.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].