To opt, or not to opt?
That is the question.
The Tennessee Volunteers are going through on-campus practices for the Orange Bowl knowing they will not have junior receiver Jalin Hyatt and fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman for the Dec. 30 matchup against Clemson. The two high-round draft projections revealed in recent days that they would forego Tennessee's biggest bowl game in a generation in order to get a head start on their respective NFL opportunities, while senior right tackle Darnell Wright announced that he would compete against the Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
Hyatt and Tillman are among several notable Southeastern Conference talents who are bypassing bowls, joining Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson and linebacker Ventrell Miller, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., and LSU defensive end BJ Ojulari.
"We want guys to have the opportunity to go to that level, to be a high draft pick and maximize their value," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said Saturday in a news conference. "When we have those conversations, we try to get the right information in front of them, so that they can make the right decision for them and their family.
"Whether that's Jalin, Darnell or all these guys, you want them to have the education and have the information, and then you let them make a great decision. We are excited for Jalin and his future, and we know he's going to be a high draft pick. We're excited that we had a huge part in his journey. This is going to be his home forever."
Hyatt this season became the first Biletnikoff Award winner in Tennessee history after amassing 67 receptions for 1,267 yards and a program-record 15 touchdowns.
Tennessee has earned a New Year's Six bowl invitation after a 10-2 regular season just like Alabama, which will play Big 12 Conference champion Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve afternoon. This is only the second occasion in which Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have failed to reach the College Football Playoff in the nine-year history of the four-team extravaganza, but Saban said Friday evening that he does not expect to have any players opt out of the trip to New Orleans.
That includes junior quarterback Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, and junior outside linebacker Will Anderson, a two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. There have been multiple mock drafts projecting Young and Anderson to go among the first five picks.
"It's kind of interesting that people opt out of playing for their team, because the way you create value for yourself is to play football," Saban said in a news conference. "That is the best way you can create value for your future. I hear guys all the time say, 'I'm going to get ready for the NFL,' but what do you mean? Are you getting ready for the combine? A lot of things you do at the combine are not even relevant to what you do on the football field.
"These two guys are great competitors, and that's why they want to play and to continue to create value for themselves and be great teammates. That may sound old-fashioned in a lot of ways, but I sort of respect that. I think it sets a great example that guys respect their teammates and know the impact that they can make and the value they can make. I'm extremely proud of these guys."
Saban also admitted that Alabama, as an institution, is insuring Young and Anderson "the best we can to minimize risk."
Heupel explained Saturday that Tillman assumed some risk by simply coming back from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in the third game this season against Akron. Tillman compiled 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and he had nine catches for 162 yards and the game-winning score in the 34-27 overtime win at Pittsburgh before getting hurt the following week.
"He's a young guy who obviously played extremely well a year ago and was ready to play extremely well this year, too," Heupel said. "He had the surgery, and he just hasn't been at 100%. I love that he came back and tried to compete on the back end of the season. I think that shows his heart for his teammates and for this program.
"For him, as he's getting ready for the draft process, I think it's important that he gets to the point where he's 100%. This month here is a chance to help him heal up and be ready for the back end of the NFL process."
The Vols practiced Friday and Saturday with a slew of midyear enrollees, including five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, but Heupel said Saturday that he wants to wait until Wednesday's start to the early signing period before addressing the newcomers specifically.
"We are excited to have them as a part of our program in what's going on, getting this experience here and practicing at home," Heupel said. "A lot of them will be able to go to the bowl site as well. We are excited for them, and I'll talk about those guys when we get to signing day."
Midyear enrollees being allowed to participate in on-site bowl workouts is a change from previous NCAA guidelines.
Tayven Jackson hasn't been available since injuring his collarbone against UT Martin on Oct. 22, but the freshman quarterback could be Joe Milton's backup in the Orange Bowl.
"He's been back, and he's been practicing here the last week," Heupel said. "As long as we continue, I feel like he'll be available for us when we get to Miami."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.