KNOXVILLE — Overlooked in the reaction to Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt's harsh assessment of his team's performance in the Orange and White Game in April was the praise he issued to two players named most improved on the team that same day.
It became clear Wednesday that those awards, handed to senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips and redshirt junior tight end Eli Wolf, are a true reflection of the fact the new coaching staff views the two as emerging leaders for the 2018 Volunteers.
Phillips and Wolf will represent the program at the Southeastern Conference's annual media days event next week in Atlanta, the league announced. Tennessee's third player representative at the annual preseason frenzy will be junior receiver Marquez Callaway.
Tennessee's turn in front of the cameras will come next Wednesday at the College Football Hall of Fame and Omni Hotel on the third day of the event, the same day Pruitt's former employer, Alabama, takes its turn.
Pruitt's selection of Phillips, a respected senior who had a breakout season in 2017, was expected. There appeared to be several potential candidates for the other two positions.
Wolf was a walk-on player until last August and has just four career receptions. A prolific receiver in high school, he has battled injuries and the challenges of gaining enough weight to play tight end throughout his career.
He was the first-team tight end during the spring game, though, and one of few players allowed to speak with media during the spring practice session.
"Eli is very competitive," Pruitt said after the spring game. "He needs to put on weight, and he's probably had to play out of position based on what we've asked him to do. But he again has went out there and strained and competed and fought every day. That's why he was most improved."
Phillips seemed like an easy decision for next week's role. He is comfortable in front of cameras and poised to start at defensive end in Tennessee's new 3-4 defensive scheme. He spoke during the spring of changing the program's culture with a new coaching staff in place.
"It'll definitely take a while, just because it's a different culture," Phillips said. "But that's where everybody has to buy in, me included. Being a senior, being a leader for this upcoming season, just getting everyone to buy in to what coach Pruitt is preaching about, and I think we'll be good."
Pruitt complimented Phillips' body language after the spring game and noted his impeccable academic record.
"I mean, all A's on every academic report," Pruitt said. "He's never late. He never misses anything. He's dependable. Seems to be all in. Yes, or no, sir. He's really improved this spring. He's bought in to doing what we want him to do and he's done his best every day. If we could get everybody to do their best, we'd be fine."
Callaway's selection as an SEC Media Days representative comes as the junior wraps up a year spent in the athletic department's VOLeaders leadership program. He emerged as the team's best outside threat last season with 24 receptions for 406 yards and five touchdowns.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.
Senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips
Redshirt junior tight end Eli Wolf
Junior receiver Marquez Callaway
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