KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is counting on family connections to help the program return to prominence.
Five players from Butch Jones' highly touted freshman class have family members who also played football for the Volunteers. A sixth freshman -- wide receiver Vic Wharton -- is the nephew of former Tennessee basketball player Brandon Wharton.
These newcomers want to help Tennessee end a string of four consecutive losing seasons and regain the stature this program enjoyed when their relatives were here.
|Dillion Bates||Father, Bill, was a standout safety for UT and played in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys for 15 seasons from 1983-97, winning three Super Bowl titles.|
|Elliott Berry||Father, James, played running back for the Vols from 1978-81, rushing for more than 1,700 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns.|
|Evan Berry||Father, James, played running back for the Vols from 1978-81, rushing for more than 1,700 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns.|
|Neiko Creamer||Father, Andre, was a four-year letterman for the Vols from 1984-87, making 120 tackles and recording six interceptions as a defensive back; also starred as a punt returner at Tennessee.|
|Todd Kelly Jr.||Father, Todd Kelly Sr., was a star for the Vols in the early 1990s and played four seasons in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons.|
|Vic Wharton||Uncle, Brandon Wharton, played basketball at Tennessee in the late 1990s.|
"Especially since all of us are legacy guys, Tennessee's always been close to our hearts," said defensive back Elliott Berry, the younger brother of 2009 Jim Thorpe Award winner Eric Berry and the son of former Tennessee running back James Berry. "Just the fact we're in this position and have the opportunity to put Tennessee back at the top, it's a big deal to me."
Berry has arrived at Tennessee with his twin brother, Evan, also a defensive back. Linebacker Dillon Bates is the son of Bill Bates, who helped Tennessee earn three bowl bids from 1979-82 before beginning a 15-year NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys.
Defensive back Todd Kelly Jr.'s father was part of Tennessee's 1989 and 1990 SEC championship teams. Linebacker Neiko Creamer is the son of Andre Creamer, who helped the Vols win an SEC title in 1985.
These freshmen say they aren't facing any extra pressure just because of their familiar names.
"My dad told me that I'm the only person that can put pressure on myself," Evan Berry said. "It's just playing football, doing what I love. The last name doesn't really put pressure on me. It's just football."
Even so, much is expected of this group, which was ranked among the nation's top five recruiting classes by multiple services. Jones believes having so many relatives of former Vols on his team should have an impact.
Tennessee's continuing to get a recruiting edge from its family connections. Last week, Tennessee received a verbal commitment from high school defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, the son of Oakland Raiders general manager and former Vols outside linebacker Reggie McKenzie. McKenzie is rated by Scout as the nation's No. 1 overall prospect in the 2015 recruiting class.
"We want individuals that have grown up understanding the rivalry with Alabama, with Florida, understanding the traditions that we have at the University of Tennessee," Jones said. "So the legacy players have helped."
The legacy players in this freshman class certainly have that understanding.
Creamer says as soon as he started getting into sports, he began to appreciate Tennessee because he'd seen pictures of his father wearing the "Power T" on his helmet. Elliott Berry remembers spending spring break in Knoxville as a sixth-grader and attending some of his older brother's classes and practices.
Bates, who grew up in Florida, recalls traveling to Tennessee during a hurricane evacuation as a child, attending his first game at Neyland Stadium and imagining his future.
"Just walking around the stadium and campus and seeing my dad's name everywhere, it kind of stuck in my mind this is something that I want to do, and this is somewhere that I kind of fell in love with," Bates said.
Now he's savoring the opportunity to play in a stadium that already has produced so many wonderful memories for his family. Bates has a handful of classmates experiencing similar emotions.
"I loved Tennessee football when I was a kid," Kelly said. "I came to all the home games, got to see Eric Berry play, Jerod Mayo, Inky Johnson. I can name them all. Robert Meachem. It's pretty cool just to think I'm finally here."