Exactly one year ago this Friday, Tennessee announced the signing of Southern California graduate transfer receiver Velus Jones Jr.
Who knew then that he would become the face of program perseverance?
Jones was set to play just one season for the Volunteers, but he announced earlier this month that he would use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that was implemented on a one-time basis after the outbreak of the coronavirus. He has stuck with Tennessee amid a week in which coach Jeremy Pruitt and defensive assistants Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer were fired for violating NCAA rules and in which running back Eric Gray, left tackle Jahmir Johnson and linebackers Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch entered the NCAA transfer portal.
"No, I'm not leaving," Jones posted this week on Twitter, adding a smiling face emoji for some needed levity in this dark stretch. "Tennessee is my home."
The Vols have lost 15 players from their 2020 roster that produced a 3-7 season containing a six-game losing streak by double-digit margins, a skid never before endured in program history. The recent exodus has likely resulted in Tennessee slipping down past South Carolina and into 13th on the Southeastern Conference talent meter entering the 2021 season, ahead of only Vanderbilt.
Five years ago, Tennessee was coming off a 9-4 season and was in the process of producing another one.
"I feel for the players, fans and families affected by this turmoil within the program," said Todd Kelly Jr., the starting strong safety on the 2016 team that managed to defeat both Florida and Georgia. "I hope and pray that we rebound from this experience and one day become the legendary program we once used to be."
Here is a snapshot of where the program currently stands, which is subject to change in 15 minutes:
The Vols used all four scholarship quarterbacks this past season before Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout transferred out, and they could have four more later this year with the returning duo of Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer, Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker and early enrollee Kaidon Salter. Bailey's father recently expressed on Twitter that his son picked Tennessee because of Pruitt, but it's hard to imagine a starting SEC quarterback choosing to relinquish that role. Bailey completed a stout 70.6% of his passes as a freshman and started the last three games.
With Ty Chandler having transferred to North Carolina and with Gray in the portal, Tennessee's top returning rusher is Jabari Small, who gained 117 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a freshman. Next on that list are Maurer (41 yards) and Dee Beckwith (25), who inflicted most of their damage at the expense of a depleted Vanderbilt. The Vols signed Cody Brown, Jaylen Wright and junior-college standout Tiyon Evans in December, with Evans posting this week, "Don't worry UT. We're going to be good."
Josh Palmer is moving on for a shot at the NFL and Brandon Johnson is using the NCAA's extra year somewhere else, so Jones and Jalin Hyatt will enter 2021 as the primary targets. Hyatt defended the program this week on social media, responding to claims on Fox Sports Radio that Tennessee coaches were providing cash in McDonald's bags to prospects by saying, "If y'all really believe that, you've got issues." Malachi Wideman caught Bailey's first completion of the season, but that would be Wideman's lone reception of the year.
Center Brandon Kennedy and left guard Trey Smith were not only seniors this past season but team leaders, so their departures mean multiple aspects of their presence will have to be replaced. Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson combined for the 10 starts at left tackle, and each entered the portal, with Morris signing with Oklahoma. Brothers Cade and Cooper Mays could be the foundation of this year's front, while Javontez Spraggins may find his way into a starting role. Tennessee signed a trio of three-star linemen last month, so William Parker, Amari McNeill and J'Marion Gooch — quite possibly the best name in the SEC — may have to be fast-tracked a bit. The tight end position got a boost when Austin Pope, who missed this past season due to back surgery, entered but then withdrew from the portal.
Tennessee has capitalized on the NCAA's granted extra year with Matthew Butler and Darel Middleton returning, with each having been given free-agent projections in the upcoming NFL draft. The Vols certainly could use some spice at this position, and perhaps that will be provided by four-star signee KaTron Evans from Baltimore. Having a defensive line coach all season would be different from this past year.
This position has taken more of a hit than running back, as To'o To'o, Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson ranked 1-2-3 in tackles for losses but are no longer there. Bennett was dismissed before the end of the season after his arrest for handgun and sizable drug possession during a traffic stop on Neyland Drive. Crouch was also an emerging talent before bolting. Jeremy Banks and Tyler Baron would seemingly be the top candidates to pick up the slack.
This was yet another mediocre area this past season, and the secondary will move on without cornerback Bryce Thompson, who bypassed his senior season for the NFL draft. Thompson was Tennessee's lone non-senior to declare early. Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson, Alontae Taylor, Jaylen McCullough and Kenneth George Jr. have remained in the program to this point.