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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee senior receiver Josh Palmer, making a touchdown catch at Georgia on Oct. 10, said Vols players haven't opted out this season because they remain "bought in" to Jeremy Pruitt's program.

As the Southeastern Conference begins to put the finishing touches on the most challenging football season in its history, players are deciding to opt out of college competition with a bit more regularity.

LSU junior receiver Terrace Marshall had 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown Saturday night at Texas A&M before announcing his departure intentions Sunday. On Monday it was Kentucky redshirt sophomore cornerback Kelvin Joseph, the league leader with four interceptions, revealing his plans, while Arkansas senior running Rakeem Boyd, a 1,133-yard rusher last year, provided his notable news Tuesday.

Three players at three separate eligibility stages on three different teams with losing records, while all remains silent at Tennessee on the opt-out front.

"I don't know the reasons for players opting out at other schools," Volunteers senior receiver Josh Palmer said this week. "They're probably declaring for the draft and stuff like that, but I know with us that we're just really bought in. We've come together as a team, and we're just trying to finish the season strong. A lot of unfortunate events have happened throughout the year that we didn't expect, but we all came in with a goal.

"We're either all in or all out, no matter what happens."

As disappointing as this season has been for the Vols, whether it's the first five-game losing streak by double-digit margins in program history or Tuesday's dismissal of junior linebacker Kivon Bennett after his felony arrest on marijuana and handgun possession charges, there is something to be said for their ability to stick together. The recent run of SEC opt-outs began Nov. 17, when South Carolina cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu announced their exits two days after the firing of head coach Will Muschamp, but the Vols have maintained a steady roster similar to those of Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia, a quartet currently among the top eight in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Reasons for opting out this season typically begin and end with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's late in the year now, so we've kind of gotten used to it," Vols third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "It started on March 12 for our players and everybody in our program, and everything changed. We've been working hard to adapt, and I feel like our staff has done an outstanding job continuing to do that."

At 2-5, Tennessee obviously needs to be at full strength for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Neyland Stadium against No. 6 Florida (7-1) and with a home contest still to play against No. 5 Texas A&M.

"You've got guys here who are just bought in," senior edge rusher Deandre Johnson said. "We trust the medical staff around us and all the information that we're getting, and I just think that guys are locked in and practicing safety. We're hungry to play.

"The guys just want to play football here."

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

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