May 13, 2016
Defensive back Marquill Osborne might be one of the Tennessee Volunteers’ most forgotten freshmen, but he will be easy to remember once he steps onto the football field.
That likely will be sooner rather than later.
The 5’11”, 183-pound nickelback from Cornelius, North Carolina, may not have received the same headlines as Tyler Byrd or the fanfare of Nigel Warrior when he committed, but that was more about timing than talent.
He pledged to the Volunteers way back on Sept. 6, 2014, a year-and-a-half before national signing day ’16. After enrolling midterm, Osborne got on the field this spring, and though he went through the standard freshman struggles, he also showed out at times.
That natural ability could be a ticket to quick playing time. While Warrior may be one of the best true freshman prospects UT has signed in a long time, his starting path at safety is blocked by two good players in Todd Kelly Jr. and Rashaan Gaulden.
Junior Evan Berry and sophomore Micah Abernathy will have a say in that race, too.
At nickelback—where Osborne appears to have a sterling future—there’s only one player ahead of him on the depth chart in senior Malik Foreman. Though Foreman was excellent during the last half of 2015, he was a liability during the first part when he thrust into the starting lineup.
Maybe Foreman had a “Eureka!” moment as the season progressed, but it is also possible that his play improved when Tennessee’s quality of competition diminished. That’s not taking anything away from the speedy Foreman, who has an NFL ceiling, but he’s still got some things to prove.
If he falters, Osborne proved this spring he’s capable of stepping in and stepping up.
“Osborne was rated so highly out of high school for a reason, but you never know what you’re gonna get from a kid until he shows up on campus and practices in pads at this level,” GoVols247’s Wes Rucker told Bleacher Report. “Fortunately for the Vols, Osborne was as advertised this spring.
“He’s a good athlete, and he’s a tough, hard-working kid who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the pile against bigger players. He’s also decided to hitch his wagon to All-SEC cornerback Cameron Sutton and follow him everywhere he goes, which is another good sign for his future.”
Osborne shadowing Sutton isn’t a surprise. The two have similar work ethics and physical attributes. Sutton was known as a technician from the moment he stepped on campus, putting in the extra reps that wound up earning him an immediate starting job.
That likely won’t happen right away for Osborne, but it could before the season is over.
He took a lot of first-team nickel reps in the spring-ending Orange & White Game in Foreman’s absence and proved what he could do.
It wasn’t like he was some unknown recruit, despite the fact that he sometimes got lost in the shuffle when it came to members of UT’s 2016 recruiting class that excited fans. Several powerhouses made late, long runs at him such as Ohio State, Clemson and Florida.
In the end, he stuck with UT, partly because of his relationship with defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. He showed so much promise and maturity this spring that Tennessee coach Butch Jones let him speak to the media. That’s almost unheard of for any first-year Vol, much less one who just got to Knoxville.
While Osborne looked good this spring, he also battled the normal “mental fatigue” that hits all freshmen, Jones told the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘ Patrick Brown. Even the player noticed a major difference from the last level to the latest.
“It feels like playing three high school games in one practice,” Osborne told Brown.
Just getting through those first few grueling weeks of practice is always tough for first-year players, and while another wall sometimes comes late during that inaugural season, guys who get to school early have a better chance of busting through it because they’ve had longer to prepare for it.
So, being an early enrollee is another benefit Osborne has on a bunch of his fellow classmates. Only JUCO players Jeff George, Alexis Johnson and D.J. Henderson enrolled in January, and Johnson was suspended. Osborne was the only freshman to do so.
Warrior, Byrd, receiver Marquez Callaway and others have the opportunity to get on the field quickly for the Vols, but all of them will be playing catch-up when they arrive on campus this summer. Osborne will have a spring practice and five months of workouts and film study on the field.
“Getting a head start by enrolling in January should pay dividends as well,” Rucker said. “I’m not sure Osborne will start as a true freshman, but I think he’ll play some on defense and be a big help on special teams as well. And I think he has a bright future at Tennessee.”
That future could start right away.
The best-case scenario for the Vols, of course, is for Foreman to pick up where he left off last season with his spectacular, game-changing plays when football seemed to finally slow down for him. If that’s the case and Osborne continues to push him, that’s best for everybody.
That way, the coaches can bring along Osborne, work him into the fold in less pressure-filled situations and watch him grow as the season progresses. By the middle of the season, he should provide quality depth at the very least.
When you have special players, it’s difficult to keep them off the field. Osborne has that ability; a perfect picture of the upgrade in athlete that Jones is bringing in since coming to Knoxville.
There’s very little that’s raw about him. From his footwork to his physique, he is an impressive defender who’ll have firm footing in that Tennessee defensive backfield for years to come. Sutton agreed, telling Rucker:
He’s hungry, willing to learn, willing to take critique, staying in his playbook, always watching film, always asking questions, and he’s able to come out here and make plays and be successful. He’s one of the first couple guys in the meeting room each and every time. I see him, you know, staying after practice or after lifting and working his game, working his craft.
Those are the type of guys you need in the program—guys that are gonna be consistent and, you know, learn, and be willing to learn and help us out there on Saturday.
Warrior may be the favorite freshman to wow everybody with his ability, and Byrd is the uber-athlete who can play both ways. Callaway is a polished receiver who can bolster a thin position, and Latrell Williams’ speed will be hard to keep on the sideline.
But Osborne’s head start is a big deal, and his talent is even bigger. Don’t count him out as a player who could make a lot of noise right away, even in a deep, star-studded defensive backfield.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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