Vols could be returning to Fulmer-era success on NFL draft front

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Senior right tackle Darnell Wright played 829 snaps during Tennessee’s 10-2 regular season without allowing a sack.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Senior right tackle Darnell Wright played 829 snaps during Tennessee’s 10-2 regular season without allowing a sack.

Tennessee's success on the football field during Josh Heupel's first two seasons appears to be translating into more NFL draft attention as well.

The Senior Bowl announced Monday that Volunteers senior right tackle Darnell Wright had accepted an invitation to play in the coveted all-star game, which will be held Feb. 4, 2023, at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the University of South Alabama campus in Mobile. Three other Vols -- quarterback Hendon Hooker, receiver Cedric Tillman and edge rusher Byron Young -- also have received Senior Bowl invites, with Young being the first to reveal that he would play.

Hooker obviously will be unable to compete due to the torn left anterior cruciate ligament he sustained late in the 63-38 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 19.

"I'm really happy and proud of the way Darnell performed on the field to earn this honor," Tennessee offensive line coach Glen Elarbee posted on Twitter, "but more importantly the man he has continued to become every day."

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy responded to Elarbee's tweet by posting, "You did a great job with Darnell. He made a huge jump this year."

The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Wright played 829 snaps during Tennessee's 10-2 regular season without allowing a sack. He is the only Southeastern Conference offensive lineman to play more than 750 snaps and have a Pro Football Focus efficiency rating above 99%, assembling a 99.2% clip.

ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller referred to Wright on Monday as "the best right tackle in the class."

With the likes of Wright, Hooker, Tillman, Young, left guard Jerome Carvin and linebacker Jeremy Banks, the Vols have a solid chance to produce at least five NFL draft selections in consecutive years for the first time since the Phillip Fulmer era. Carvin and Banks will be playing in the East-West Shrine Bowl on Thursday, Feb. 2, in Las Vegas.

Cornerback Alontae Taylor, receiver Velus Jones Jr., defensive tackle Matthew Butler, offensive lineman Cade Mays and safety Theo Jackson were drafted back in April, but this current collection of Vols could get closer to 10 selections if junior receiver Jalin Hyatt and junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas enter the mix as well.

Hyatt, who won the Biletnikoff Award last Thursday night as college football's top receiver, said afterward on a Zoom call that he could make an announcement regarding his future as early as this week.

Two NFL draft mock projections this month by USA Today and the Draft Network have Hyatt going in the first round, with USA Today pegging him 23rd to the New York Giants.

"Hyatt has put up huge numbers in a breakout campaign and deserves first-round billing," USA Today explained in its ranking.

Neither CBS nor the Pro Football Network currently have any Tennessee players going in the first round, but Pro Football Network has four -- Wright, Hooker, Hyatt and Tillman -- predicted as second-round selections. Pro Football Network projects Thomas in the fifth round and Carvin in the sixth and also has UTC offensive lineman McClendon Curtis and defensive lineman Devonnsha Maxwell as fifth- and sixth-round picks.

Tennessee produced a whopping 65 draft selections during the 1990s and came back with another 54 during the 2000s. In the 2010s, however, only 25 Vols were chosen, including none during the 2015, 2016 and 2019 drafts.

Tillman finished

Tillman announced Monday afternoon on social media that he has played his final game with the Vols.

"In order to be fully healthy and ready to go as I prepare for the 2023 NFL draft," Tillman posted on Twitter, "I will not play in the Orange Bowl but will fully support my teammates."

The 6-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas amassed 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and this season got off to a strong start with a nine-catch, 162-yard performance in the second game at Pittsburgh, including the game-winning 28-yard catch in overtime. In the third game against Akron, however, Tillman suffered a high-ankle sprain that knocked him out of the next four contests.

Tillman's final outing with the Vols was a nine-catch, 81-yard, two-touchdown effort in the loss at South Carolina.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

Upcoming Events