Tennessee's top offensive and defensive players enter transfer portal

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sophomore running back Eric Gray, who led the team in rushing this past season, was among four Volunteers who entered the NCAA transfer portal Wednesday.

Tennessee's two most productive football players from this past season, sophomore running back Eric Gray and sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o, entered the NCAA transfer portal Wednesday, delivering a significant blow to the already reeling Volunteers.

Also entering the portal Wednesday were fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson and sophomore linebacker Quavaris Crouch.

Their departures extend an already disastrous week in which head coach Jeremy Pruitt, inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton were abruptly terminated as a result of an internal investigation that revealed multiple NCAA Level I and Level II violations. Pruitt just last week flew out to California with defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley and new defensive assistant Kevin Steele to keep To'o To'o from leaving.

"Being a Vol will always have a special place in my heart," To'o To'o posted Wednesday night on Twitter, "and I mean that."

Gray led the Vols in rushing this past season with 772 yards but did not play the season finale against Texas A&M on Dec. 19. When asked after that game if Gray's absence was due to the investigation, Pruitt declined to answer.

Tennessee's second-leading rusher this past season, Ty Chandler, previously entered the transfer portal and is now at North Carolina.

To'o To'o was the clear standout of a mostly mediocre defense, racking up 76 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown in the opening victory at South Carolina. Crouch was Tennessee's third-leading tackler this past season with 57 stops, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, while Johnson started five games at left tackle, including the last three against Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.

The current hemorrhaging also includes players who planned to play for the Vols but never will, such as four-star receiver Jordan Mosley, who became the first commitment for Tennessee's 2021 signing class on June 22, 2019. The Mobile, Alabama, standout did not sign with the Vols during last month's early period, and he is no longer pledged to the program.

"I have made a decision to decommit from the University of Tennessee and explore other options," Mosley posted on Twitter. "This wasn't easy to do, but it's a business decision that I feel is best for me."

The second commitment for Tennessee's 2021 signing class, Baylor School running back Elijah Howard, parted ways with the Vols on Dec. 15 and wound up signing with Virginia Tech.

Tennessee's top-rated signee in the early period, weakside defensive end Dylan Brooks of Roanoke, Alabama, is now seeking a change in locale. Brooks, according to 247Sports.com, has submitted a national letter of intent release request.

The Vols also have lost three-star offensive lineman Colby Smith from Reidsville, North Carolina, who was a commitment but didn't sign in December, and their lone commitment for 2022 is no longer. Jimmy Scott, a three-star strongside defensive end in the 2022 cycle out of Hamburg, New York, also revealed his decision via social media.

"I would like to give a huge 'Thank you' to the Tennessee coaching staff for believing in me and recruiting me," Scott said. "I will forever be grateful for that."

As far as players transferring into the program, former Auburn defensive end Big Kat Bryant appears to be looking elsewhere. Bryant deleted a Twitter post from last week in which he announced Tennessee as his transfer destination and cited Felton, his high school coach, as the chief reason.

Freeze out

Former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was a desired name for many Tennessee fans even when Pruitt was still coaching the Vols, but that is not going to happen.

If the multiple times Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman used "integrity" during Monday's news conference wasn't convincing enough, university president Randy Boyd has since shut the door.

"You don't clean house of a bunch of people who aren't following compliance and go out and get other people that don't seem to have a record of following compliance," Boyd told the Knoxville News-Sentinel when asked about Freeze. "Somebody's integrity and their history of integrity will be a key criteria."

Freeze led the Rebels to upsets of Alabama in back-to-back seasons (2014-15) and to a Sugar Bowl trampling of Oklahoma State after the 2015 season. He was forced to resign in July 2017 after it was revealed he used a university-issued phone to call a female escort service, and an NCAA investigation into the program resulted in a two-year bowl ban and a one-year show cause penalty for Freeze.

Given a second chance at Liberty University, Freeze has guided the Flames to an 18-6 record the past two years, including wins this past season at Syracuse and at Virginia Tech.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.