The 2014 recruiting class for the Tennessee football team brought back an excitement for Vols football that has been absent for the last few years in Vol nation. The 32-man class has injected a load of talent into a depleted roster, and competition for nearly every position is fierce. As many as a dozen freshman could see significant playing time this season, but there are six recruits who received more attention than the rest in the 2014 class.
The “legacy class” as it’s called is comprised of six players who have family ties to the Vols. Todd Kelly Jr., Dillon Bates, Vic Wharton III, Neiko Creamer, Evan Berry, and Elliot Berry all had fathers, uncles, or brothers who played for Tennessee. They have a direct bloodline to Tennessee, and they were some of the most vital members of the 2014 class.
Todd Kelly’s father, his namesake, played linebacker for the Vols from 1989-92 and was drafted in the 1st round of the NFL draft. Bill Bates, father of Dillon, was a Tennessee favorite from 1979-82 as a star safety. He went on to play for 15 seasons in the NFL. Neiko Creamer’s dad, Andre Creamer, was a defensive back for the Vols who is most remembered for his stellar punt return against Alabama in 1984.
Vic Wharton’s uncle never scored a touchdown for Tennessee, but Brandon Wharton did help lead the 1998-99 basketball team to an SEC East division crown and is 11th on Tennessee’s all-time scoring list. The Berry twins are double legacies, if you will. Their father, James Berry, played running back for the Vols from 1978-81 and was a captain of the 1981 team. Their older brother, Eric Berry, is a Tennessee legend and easily the best Vol to take the field in the last decade. As a safety, Eric nabbed 14 interceptions, set the SEC mark for interception return yards with 487 (14 yards shy of the NCAA mark), and won the Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back in 2009.
In an unprecedented move, the University of Tennessee allowed these freshman to talk to the media Friday afternoon. Typically, freshman football players are not allowed to speak to the media, per SEC and NCAA rules. These six players aren’t just any freshman, however, and fans have been craving information on them since they committed.
These legacy commitments were key recruiters for other top prospects in the 2014 class, and they aren’t too shabby as players themselves. Kelly, Bates, and Evan Berry were all rated as 4-star prospects, and Wharton III, Creamer, and Elliot Berry all bring athleticism to their respective positions and are expected to compete for playing time on offense, defense, and special teams.
Every one of these players has a name to live up to in Tennessee lore, but they don’t seem bothered by that. “That’s not really on my mind,” said Elliot Berry when asked about living up to his older brother, Eric Berry. “I feel like I already have my own name. I mean, my name’s not Eric. I feel like I already make my own path.”
Elliot’s twin brother, Evan, holds a similar view. “My dad always told me I’m the only the person who can put pressure on myself,” stated the other Berry. “My last name doesn’t really put pressure on me. It’s just football.”
Not only are the legacies not bothered by the elevated expectations of living up to a family member’s name, but they seemed unfazed by the rebuilding project that is ahead for Tennessee football. The legacies knew what they were getting themselves into when they signed on to play for the Vols, but instead of tucking their tails between their legs and bolting out the door, they welcome the challenge and are excited to bring Tennessee back to the “glory days.”
“The fact that we’re in the position to have the opportunity to put Tennessee back at the top is a big deal,” Elliot Berry said with a chuckle. Dillon Bates echoed Berry’s sentiments. “It’s everybody’s goal to bring back Tennessee to where it’s supposed to be,” Bates said, “It will happen. It’s just a matter of time of us getting together, of us doing everything that we can to help us this season.”
When asked why he chose the Vols over programs like Alabama, Todd Kelly Jr. lauded the coaching staff for sharing the same passion for bringing back a winning culture at Tennessee. “Tennessee really rose above all of (the other schools) because of the coaching staff and the vision they have,” the Webb High School standout stated. “They want to bring the winning tradition back to the program, which is what everybody wants. They just want to win games, and I want to be a part of that.”
Even though these players have parents and other family members who played for the Vols, they claimed they were never steered towards Tennessee over any other school. Eric Berry told Elliot that Knoxville was “the greatest place on Earth,” but when it came to a decision, he let his younger brother make up his own mind.
“My dad never pressured me into anything with Tennessee football,” replied Dillon Bates when asked if his father, Bill, used his legendary status at UT to persuade him to don the orange and white. “During my recruitment, he took me everywhere, Alabama, Florida, and Ohio State. He did a great job of giving me a chance to look around and explore my options to make my own decision.”
Overall, the six legacy players preached the same message: We are a family, and we are excited for our opportunity. “A bunch of us guys in the freshman class stick together and all push each other,” stated Bates, “We all stay accountable for each other.”
“I loved Tennessee football when I was a kid,” Todd Kelly Jr. added with a smile. “I came to all the home games, got to see Eric Berry, Jerod Mayo, Inky Johnson, Robert Meachem all play. I can name them all.
“Just to think that I’m finally here, it still hasn’t really dawned on me yet. But I think once I run out of the ‘T’ with all those fans out there, it’ll finally process.”
The feelings of all six can be perfectly encapsulated by Vic Wharton, the one player without a football tie to the Vols. “I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” he stated with a huge grin, “We couldn’t ask for a better class.
“I can’t believe we’re all finally here.”