KNOXVILLE - Even news the Tennessee football program expected for weeks came with an unexpected twist.
Tennessee officially confirmed the anticipated early entries of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft as juniors on Wednesday, but defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore's decision to follow suit provided the day's surprise.
After spending two seasons at Alabama, Sentimore left the Crimson Tide and played one season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before signing with the Volunteers and enrolling last January. He was out of shape and overweight during his first spring practice, but the 6-foot-2, 288-pound former four-star recruit out of high school earned a starting spot during preseason camp. In nine starts in 2012, Sentimore made 18 tackles, finished with five tackles for loss and led the Vols with four sacks.
Along with some academic questions, the departures of defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and defensive intern Nick Gentry, a former assistant and player at Alabama when Sentimore was there, played a role in his decision to leave, though it's possible he won't get drafted.
That won't be the case for the Vols' three departing offensive skill players.
Patterson is projected to be a first-round pick, Hunter likely won't slide out of the top 40 picks and the latest projections have Bray getting selected in the second or third rounds.
Bray's 3,612 yards and 34 touchdown passes this season were the second-most in a single season by a Vols quarterback in the program's history. Hunter finished fourth in the SEC in catches (73), third in yards (1,083) and caught nine touchdown passes after missing his sophomore season due to a severe knee injury. Both players have the physical talents that make them attractive to the NFL.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Patterson dazzled in his lone season with the Vols. The junior-college transfer racked up a school single-season record 1,858 all-purpose yards and became the first college player to score touchdowns four different ways (rushing, receiving and kickoff and punt returns) since 2008. He demonstrated the physical skills and awareness to shake defenders, deceiving speed and an ability to score from anywhere on the field on any touch of the ball.
Under new coach Butch Jones, UT must replace nearly 80 percent of its passing-game production with the early departures and graduations of receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. Tennessee returns only three receivers -- Jacob Carter, Vincent Dallas and Alton "Pig" Howard -- who have caught passes in a game. With six catches for 73 yards in two seasons, Brendan Downs is the lone tight end who's produced.
The quarterback battle now begins in earnest between rising junior Justin Worley and redshirted freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley started three games as a freshman and completed eight of his 11 passes in his most significant action against Vanderbilt in November. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Peterman, who Jones and his staff recruited while they were at Cincinnati, may be a better fit for the Vols' new system, but Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian have insisted in interviews they prefer the best quarterback regardless of any dual-threat ability.
Sentimore is the third defensive lineman the Vols have lost this week alone. Freshmen Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor did not return to the program, along with cornerback Deion Bonner. Since Tennessee will have six senior defensive linemen for Jones' first season, those two defections damage the Vols' depth beyond 2013.
The position will be a focus over the next 13 months, and Tennessee most definitely will have to continue the trend of hitting the junior-college ranks for defensive linemen.
Offensive lineman Dallas Thomas, who was selected to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl on Jan. 26, is the most likely UT player to be drafted after Bray, Patterson and Hunter. Fullback/tight end Ben Bartholomew, receiver Zach Rogers and defensive back Prentiss Waggner are scheduled to play in the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 19. Linebacker Herman Lathers will play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in California on the same day.
The seven departures from the program unofficially leave Tennessee at 62 scholarships, meaning the Vols have 23 available spots.