Tennessee senior cornerback Alontae Taylor admits he wasn't exactly aces at Volunteer State geography as a youngster growing up in Manchester, the county seat of Coffee County.
"I didn't know where Chattanooga was for the longest time, and I didn't realize it was closer than I thought," the 6-foot, 193-pounder said. "I always thought Chattanooga was as far away as Knoxville - like two or three hours - but Chattanooga can be less than an hour drive. I've been there several times to go to UTC and see some of my friends.
"It's a good vacation spot."
Taylor's knowledge of Tennessee has grown through the years along with his love for the state, and those factors played a role in his decision to suit up one final season for the Volunteers. Last year's 3-7 collapse in Jeremy Pruitt's third and tumultuous season as coach followed by January's revelation that a university investigation had uncovered NCAA Level I and II violations resulted in a mass exodus from Knoxville via the NCAA transfer portal.
Running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, offensive tackles Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson, receiver Brandon Johnson, edge rusher Deondre Johnson and inside linebacker Henry To'o To'o were among Tennessee's top players last year and decided to leave, and the secondary took a hit as well when Key Lawrence joined Gray and Morris at Oklahoma, and when Bryce Thompson entered the NFL draft pool a year early and didn't get selected.
"I'm from the state of Tennessee, and the University of Tennessee means a lot to me," Taylor said. "Wearing orange and white is a privilege, and it's bigger than me, and wearing that Power T on my chest is bigger than me. Staying here versus going somewhere else was never really too hard of a decision to make.
"I knew I wanted to stay at the University of Tennessee, and I tried to keep as many here as I could. As for those who left, I don't have any hard feelings for those guys. I wish them the best."
Last year: 3-7 (3-7 SEC)Season opener: Sept. 2 vs. Bowling Green in Knoxville (8 p.m. on SEC Network)Fun fact: Tennessee will be commemorating its 100th season in Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers were 1-4 in Neyland last season, their worst home mark ever.Up next: Texas A&M
Taylor, who was forever hooked on the Vols after their 2016 win over Florida while wearing the smokey grey uniforms, is also just the third member of his family ever to go to college. He promised his mother he would get his degree before challenging the professional football world.
A four-star signee in Pruitt's inaugural 2018 class, Taylor had instant success with the Vols, playing in all 12 games with eight starts. He became Tennessee's first true freshman defensive back to start a season opener since Cameron Sutton five years earlier, and he wound up amassing 40 tackles, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick that season.
Taylor collected 33 tackles as a sophomore and snagged his first career interception during the loss at Florida, but last season he was hindered by a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games.
When he did play he was solid, with Pro Football Focus pointing out Taylor did not allow a touchdown in 234 coverage snaps. Away from the field, he earned SEC Academic Honor Roll accolades for a second straight year, but the frustrations from a season ago are still evident.
"It mentally bothered me a lot to miss games against Kentucky and Arkansas," Taylor said. "I came off the bench against Alabama, and I was used in just certain situations down at Auburn. Those things hurt, because I wanted to start every game and be able to play to my full potential, but I couldn't to that.
"Now, I will have my degree, and I will be healthier than I've been since I've been at the university. I can show the world that I'm better than I once was and that I have a lot to bring to the table."
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