This year, just like last year, Senior Day is complicated. An extra year of eligibility is on the table for several Tennessee seniors, making the final game of the season inside of Neyland Stadium not so straight forward.
For a handful of players, this will for sure be it. ‘Super seniors’ — those that already took their extra season — will lace them up one final time in Knoxville, taking on in-state rival Vanderbilt. Velus Jones Jr., Theo Jackson, Matthew Butler, Ja’Quain Blakely, LaTrell Bumphus and Caleb Tremblay fit into that category. Each of those guys have been huge for Josh Heupel in year one, laying the foundation for Tennessee teams to come.
Others will have decisions to make. Hendon Hooker, Cade Mays, Jerome Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, Princeton Fant, Ollie Lane, Juwan Mitchell, Solon Page, Trevon Flowers, Paxton Brooks and Chase McGrath fall into that category. Some of those decisions have likely already been made — like Alontae Taylor for example, who accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl on Wednesday. For others without an obvious pro future, it’s more complicated. There will be a time to figure all of that out, though.
Saturday is a chance for this group to take it all in one more time. It’s a chance for us to recognize a group that frankly turned into one of the most productive senior classes in recent memory. Their work has been huge for this first year staff, considering the hand they were dealt upon arrival.
“I think a lot of coaches would tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it, because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers,” Josh Heupel said this week. “To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had a great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process. I don’t know when — I felt like the buy-in continued to grow throughout the course of it. After our initial meeting, I think there was some energy from them that, man, maybe things are going to be different.”
From a 3-7 season finishing with a blowout loss to Texas A&M, to the recruiting investigation, to the firing of Jeremy Pruitt, to the loss of 30 players in the portal — these seniors had every reason to throw in the towel. But they didn’t. They bought in, and helped build a special final season, one that should end with seven wins and the arrow pointing in the right direction for the program.
Maybe the most optimistic Tennessee fan saw this coming, but not many did. Many in the media figured the Vols would be scrapping for five wins — six at the most. They now have a shot a seven and a bowl win.
More impressive than the win total itself is the obvious change in attitude from the exact same players from the 3-7 team a year ago. This group lost key starter after key starter, yet rebounded and worked to improve the program.
“Facing adversity and running right into it and never losing faith and just continuing to compete and grow,” Heupel said of his senior class. “I think all the uncertainty of last offseason, December to January, to a new coaching staff arriving, them buying into it, a lot of them being great leaders inside of our program. Been instrumental in how we’ve grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”
Senior day kickoff against Vanderbilt is set for Saturday at 3:45 p.m. ET. SEC Network will carry the action.
We’ll have much more on several key decisions from this senior group next month.