Vols enter senior day with lots of player decisions yet to be made

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren (87) and quarterback Joe Milton III (7) are sixth-year seniors who will suit up for the final time inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday when the No. 25 Volunteers host Vanderbilt.

The emotions of senior day at Tennessee haven't changed through the years, as Volunteers players always savor their one last run through the "T" inside Neyland Stadium.

Uncertainty levels these days are much different, however, as fourth-year seniors and many fifth-year seniors have the opportunity to use an extra season of eligibility due to the 2020 outbreak of the coronavirus. Tennessee has more than 30 scholarship seniors on this season's roster, with roughly half of them having the potential to return.

"For our guys who are seniors and potentially exhausting their eligibility and have the opportunity to walk, I think it's important to keep the main thing the main thing, which is performing Saturday afternoon against Vanderbilt," Vols coach Josh Heupel said Monday during his weekly news conference. "On the back end of the season, you want guys to make the right choice for them and for their families and their future, so you have conversations with them, and you also try to help provide information to them.

"At the end of the day, guys have to be ready to make the decision either way. If you try to rush or pressure them into that, they end up in a situation where they maybe make the wrong one."

The No. 25 Vols are 7-4 overall and 3-4 in Southeastern Conference play heading into Saturday afternoon's pairing (3:30 on the SEC Network) against the in-state Commodores, who are 2-9 and 0-7. A win by Tennessee would result in a third consecutive season of at least .500 play in conference contests, which would be a first for the program since a 16-season run from 1989-2004.

Running back Jabari Small, offensive linemen Cooper Mays and Javontez Spraggins, defensive linemen Tyler Baron, Bryson Eason and Omari Thomas, and defensive backs Tamarion McDonald and Doneiko Slaughter are among Tennessee's fourth-year seniors who have the opportunity to use the COVID year.

Spraggins, a guard who has started 37 games in his career, suffered a leg injury in Saturday's 38-10 loss to Georgia and is out for the rest of the season.

"It's unfortunate, because he's a guy who pours into his teammates and has great energy," Heupel said. "He competes really hard and has continued to get better as a player. I am really disappointed for him."

Sixth-year senior tackle John Campbell Jr. and redshirt junior tackle Gerald Mincey didn't play against the Bulldogs, but Heupel is hopeful of them being available for the regular-season finale.

Tennessee's fourth-year seniors experienced a combined 10-13 record their first two seasons and a combined 18-6 mark in the last two. The obvious highlight was last season's 11-2 run to an Orange Bowl championship that included downings of rivals Florida and Alabama and a brief stay atop the College Football Playoff rankings.

This season's 7-4 team hasn't matched last year's success, but an 8-4 regular-season record would be the second-best mark that Tennessee's fourth-, fifth- or sixth-year seniors have experienced. The Vols have sixth-year seniors such as quarterback Joe Milton III (Michigan) and kicker Charles Campbell (Indiana), who began their college careers elsewhere, while tight end Jacob Warren, offensive lineman Ollie Lane and defensive lineman Kurott Garland have been in Knoxville all six seasons and were recruited during the Butch Jones era.

Tennessee's sixth-year seniors arrived after the 4-8 team of 2017 that went winless in SEC play, suffered an embarrassing loss to Georgia State in the 2019 opener, and endured the 3-7 COVID season in 2020 that was followed by the dismissal of coach Jeremy Pruitt due to multiple NCAA violations.

"You get these moments before the game, soaking it all in and seeing the fans in the crowd," Lane said Monday. "I'm sure I'll get a nice moment getting to go through the 'T' one last time and being able to soak it in, but when it's game time, it's game time."

The Vols have fifth-year seniors such as linebacker Aaron Beasley, receiver Ramel Keyton and edge rusher Roman Harrison, who will be playing inside Neyland for the final time, while others such as offensive linemen Dayne Davis and Jackson Lampley, defensive lineman Elijah Simmons, and defensive backs Warren Burrell, Gabe Jeudy-Lally, Brandon Turnage and Wesley Walker could choose to return for a sixth season.

"It hasn't hit me all the way yet," Keyton said. "Honestly, I just want to win."

Heupel has prepared his seniors who know they are playing for the final time in Neyland that, "It hits you in the face really quickly." This will be Heupel's third senior day at Tennessee, and he seems just as appreciative of this collection as with his first two.

"It's a really special group of guys who have been through some uncertainty through their time in the program," he said. "They chose to stay when I arrived and have been instrumental in helping the culture and turning our program around. It's a special group in how they've performed but also just who they are as people.

"I'm really proud of them."

National leader

Junior Jaylen Wright leads all FBS running backs who have a minimum of 100 carries with 7.44 yards per rush.

The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder from Durham, North Carolina, has 126 rushes for 938 yards and four touchdowns through 11 games. He needs 62 yards to become Tennessee's first 1,000-yard rusher since Jalen Hurd in 2015.

Wright has amassed his season totals having yet to get 20 carries in any game.

"We've got a good stable of backs, and I do think they complement each other," Heupel said. "We typically try to go with the guy who has the hot hand, and Jaylen has been fantastic all year long. He's created some huge plays for us, and we're going to need that in this football game as well."

LSU fifth-year senior quarterback Jayden Daniels actually leads all FBS players with 100 or more carries with an 8.18-yard average. Daniels has 1,014 rushing yards entering Saturday's home game against Texas A&M.

Odds and ends

Tennessee has a 79-32-5 record against Vanderbilt on the field, but the series is officially recognized as 77-32-5 due to the Vols having to vacate their 2019 and 2020 victories as a result of NCAA violations under Pruitt. ... Although there weren't many bright spots against Georgia, the Vols did only commit three penalties for 20 yards. ... Heupel is hopeful of having McDonald, Walker and Jourdan Thomas back in the secondary this week but added that Walker is more questionable than the others. ... The Vols are now up to three 2025 commitments from three-star cornerbacks out of Milton High in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, receiving a nonbinding pledge from Tyler Redmond (6-1, 169).

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.