Tennessee will conduct pro day Thursday morning, with former Volunteers standouts such as center Brandon Kennedy, receiver Josh Palmer, left guard Trey Smith and cornerback Bryce Thompson showcasing their skills in the bench press, cone drills and 40-yard dash.
For Smith, however, being selected in next month's NFL draft will involve his medical history as well.
The discovery of blood clots in the 6-foot-6, 330-pounder's lungs put his football career in jeopardy before his sophomore and junior seasons, and Smith participated in just two full-pads practices during his junior year, when Tennessee went 8-5 and won the Gator Bowl. Smith was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection in 2019 and again last season, when the Vols skidded to a 3-7 record, but the NFL has a history of delving into every last detail of draft prospects.
"Teams that have done their due diligence understand that what I have is a prior condition," Smith said Wednesday on a Zoom call. "The plan that we sustained this past season not only is something we can do in the NFL but would have immediate success."
Thursday also will mark the first spring practice of the Josh Heupel era in Knoxville.
Other than playing on teams that couldn't close the gap against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, Smith managed to check every respectable box possible during his four-year career. Within the past week, Smith became the first Vols football player since quarterback Josh Dobbs in 2016 to receive the university's Torchbearer Award, which goes to seniors who "embody the Volunteer spirit while demonstrating academic excellence and a commitment to serving others."
Smith earning what is considered the university's highest student honor will only enhance his stellar reputation, but he is just as confident about his medical history and is ready to enlighten each of the 32 teams if needed.
"I know it's something we haven't been completely open with in the past for my own privacy," Smith said, "but I hope this will be a way to pioneer ground for people with my same blood-clotting issues or other things of that nature. You look at people like (New England center) David Andrews and (Carolina tackle) Russell Okung, and they've had very similar issues to what I've had. They are very high-level offensive linemen as well.
"We are telling people what my situation is and how we've solved the issue and what it is going forward. I can explain it a million times if I have to, because it is something that is unique and different. I just want to play in the NFL, so I have no issue whatsoever helping people understand what I went through and making them comfortable with it."
Smith was pegged to get selected during the middle of the first round in a CBS mock draft last September, but another CBS projection within the past few days had him going to Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay as the final pick of the second round. He should be the first Tennessee player taken this year, with Palmer projected as a third-day selection (fourth through seventh rounds) and with Kennedy and Thompson either in late rounds or signing as undrafted free agents.
Palmer had 99 receptions for 1,514 yards (15.3 yards per catch) during his four-year career and made two catches for 27 yards and a touchdown in January's Senior Bowl. Palmer said Wednesday that he met with all 32 teams in conjunction with that event in Mobile, Alabama.
Thompson is different from Kennedy, Palmer and Smith in that he bypassed his senior year of eligibility. He amassed 102 tackles and 19 passes defended and forced 10 turnovers during his three seasons, which included eight interceptions.
"I felt confident in my skill play and that I had put good film up," Thompson said of his choice. "I just felt I was ready for the next level."
Kennedy spent six seasons in college, with the first three at Alabama. He redshirted during the Crimson Tide's 2015 national championship season and experienced another title in 2017 before transferring, and his 2018 with the Vols was derailed by injury after the opener against West Virginia, which led to a medical redshirt and the sixth season.
As a center last year, Kennedy played 507 snaps and allowed one sack.
"Since childhood, your goal is to get drafted, but either way, I just want an opportunity to go somewhere and showcase my abilities," Kennedy said. "Just getting my foot in the door is the opportunity I'm focused on."
Palmer, Smith and Thompson would have been invited to last month's NFL combine in Indianapolis had there been one, so this represents a significant stage before the draft and another step in their memorable journeys.
"I'm talking to different organizations that I used to play Madden with," Smith said. "It's a surreal experience."
Former Tennessee running back and running backs coach Jay Graham abruptly resigned Wednesday as Alabama's tight ends coach and special teams coordinator after less than two months in those roles.
"The events of the past year have taken a toll on millions of people around the world, not only in lost loved ones or lost jobs but in the unprecedented anxieties in mental health," Graham said on social media. "I am taking time away from football to seek professional help immediately, gain a better understanding of mental health and spend time with loved ones. I hope to re-balance my life so that I am able to return to my passion of coaching and helping student-athletes pursue their dreams."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday night that the program "will support him in any way that we can," adding that special assistant Todd Watson will handle Graham's duties on an interim basis. Watson spent the past three years at Tennessee, last season as director of football programming.
Door still open
Heupel told 247Sports.com on Wednesday the door is still open for linebackers Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch to return to the program. Each entered the NCAA transfer portal after the termination of former coach Jeremy Pruitt.
To'o To'o is back home in California taking UT courses virtually, while Crouch has remained in Knoxville.