KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee defensive end Kyle Phillips is quite familiar with Nashville's Nissan Stadium, the site of the 25th-ranked Volunteers' season opener.
Nissan Stadium serves as the home field for both the NFL's Tennessee Titans and Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee State, where Phillips' mother works as the Tigers' athletic director. As a youngster, Phillips and his brother would run onto the field in Tennessee State uniforms before each home game.
''His head was too weak to really hold the helmet on, (so) his head would be bobbling as he ran across the field,'' Teresa Phillips said.
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Phillips has grown up quite a bit since.
Throughout the preseason, Phillips has garnered perhaps as much praise as any member of the Vols' heralded freshman class. The Vols open the season Saturday against Bowling Green in that same stadium where he spent so many childhood weekends.
''It was fun, just (as) little kids running around and being goofy with big uniforms on and running in front of the team,'' Phillips said. ''I loved doing that when I was growing up. Now the real thing's coming. I'm excited.''
Tennessee played 23 true freshmen last season to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision teams and expects to use the majority of this year's class as well.
Darrin Kirkland Jr. is competing for a starting spot at middle linebacker. Jauan Jennings has made a remarkable transition from quarterback to wide receiver. Many more newcomers could make an immediate impact on both the offensive and defensive lines as well as on special teams.
''Just about everyone in our (freshman) class will play,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Working behind double-digit sack producers Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt at defensive end, Phillips has won raves for his work habits and ability.
''He has a tenacity about himself,'' Jones said. ''He plays with a relentless approach to get to the football. He's really been challenged by Derek and Curt. I think he really watches their style of play, and he wants that.''
Phillips has possessed that tenacity for many years. Back when he was running onto the field with Tennessee State's team as a kid, he and his brother often spent the rest of the game playing on the sidelines and re-enacting what they saw on the field.
But he actually preferred basketball growing up. His mom, a former Vanderbilt basketball player and Tennessee State coach, talked him into playing football.
''When you watched him play basketball, he was like a football player out on the basketball court, just knocking folks around and getting four fouls in the first quarter or something and always thinking he hadn't done anything,'' Teresa Phillips said. ''He had great footwork, which I thought would benefit him on the football field. I knew he had speed. Everybody in my family has long arms. I just felt like the strength that he had athletically would translate over to the football field a lot better.''
Phillips eventually developed into a player rated as a five-star prospect. His progress surprised even himself.
''It was a shock to me,'' Phillips said. ''I didn't know I was capable of being that good on the field. I love to compete, so I knew I wasn't going to be bad, but I didn't know I would be as good as I am now.''
All the while, Phillips' mother has served as one of his toughest critics, offering pointers after each game on what he could have done better.
That constructive criticism apparently paid off. The kid who used to accompany Tennessee State's team onto the field is ready to begin his actual college playing career.
''I still remember that little boy with the head bobbling because the helmet was too heavy for him to hold up on his head,'' Teresa Phillips said. ''But he's not going to be that same kid coming out (this time). I'm going to be a proud mama.''