Vols' top 2021 football signee plans to enter transfer portal

Tennessee sophomore linebacker Aaron Willis, who has survived a coaching transition and a multiweek suspension during his time with the Volunteers, announced Friday on social media that he will be leaving the program.

Willis is Tennessee's highest-rated member of a volatile 2021 signing class that contained 17 enrollees but would be down to nine if Willis departs. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Colonial Heights, Virginia, played in eight games last season and recorded his lone tackle during the 60-14 thrashing of South Alabama in late November.

"I have decided to enter my name in the (NCAA) transfer portal," Willis posted on Twitter.

The loss of Willis, the nation's No. 16 linebacker and No. 137 overall prospect in the 2021 signing cycle, would leave Tennessee without its four highest-rated members of that class, with athlete Kaemen Marley, quarterback Kaidon Salter and tight end Julian Nixon having already departed. Nixon entered the portal earlier this week with this Sunday's eligibility deadline for the one-time transfer waiver quickly approaching.

Willis committed to the Vols in May 2020 and stuck with the program through the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and the hiring of Josh Heupel. He and Salter enrolled early but did not participate in spring drills after a March 2021 incident at Stokely Hall that led to their arrests on misdemeanor drug charges.

A second drug-related incident for Salter last June resulted in his dismissal.

Tennessee was depleted at linebacker during Heupel's first spring but was noticeably more stocked in recent weeks, with second-year position coach Brian Jean-Mary praising Willis earlier this month in a news conference.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," Jean-Mary said. "He's starting to look like he's more comfortable in the system that we have, and he has been making plays every day."

The imploding of Tennessee's 2021 signing class has been countered by the success the Vols have enjoyed through the transfer portal. All 10 of Tennessee's portal acquisitions a year ago contributed last season, including the sizable impacts of quarterback Hendon Hooker, receiver JaVonta Payton and kicker Chase McGrath.

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