KNOXVILLE — Roughly 20 minutes before Saturday afternoon's kickoff between Tennessee and Vanderbilt, the Volunteers who went through the senior day ceremony ran out on the field one after the other and were greeted by first-year coach Josh Heupel.
Only Alontae Taylor turned the greeting into an embrace.
The cornerback from Coffee County who was recruited by Butch Jones, played mostly under Jeremy Pruitt and is finishing under Heupel has been through plenty like most of his classmates. Taylor could have opted to enter the NCAA transfer portal earlier this year but chose to stay out of state pride, and an emotional Heupel recognized that when he was asked after the 45-21 thumping of the Commodores about Taylor's humongous hug.
"They're a group of young men who have good careers ahead of them on the football side of it, but in life, there is no doubt these guys are going to be successful," Heupel said as his voice began to weaken. "Football prepares you in a really unique way for what's going to transpire and happen in life. These guys will be highly successful individuals with the way they stepped through things.
"For Alontae and for a lot of them and for all of them, really — I'm grateful and indebted to them in a lot of ways for their buy-in and being great leaders and being able to communicate. It's a group of seniors that communicated from the very first day I was on campus — what was working and what wasn't and what was broken and what was important to them."
Fifth-year senior safety Theo Jackson, who had a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown in his Neyland Stadium finale, expressed some difficulty in holding things together when it was his turn to run out before kickoff.
"I got a little teary-eyed, but I didn't let one drop out there," Jackson said. "It might get me tomorrow."
Defensive tackle Matthew Butler, injured right tackle Cade Mays and receivers Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton were among those also honored on senior day, but graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker chose not to go through. Hooker wound up completing 10 of 18 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing 11 times for 75 yards.
Asked when he planned to make his decision about next season, Hooker said: "Whenever that time is right. I'll be talking it over with my family and Coach Heup, and when the time is right, a decision will be made."
With Tennessee's regular season now complete at 7-5 and with bowl bids going out on Sunday, Dec. 5, Heupel will be having conversations with several players facing decisions.
"You want to present information to your players and make sure they understand where they're at and what's being said and what the process looks like, and you help them and their family," Heupel said. "You want the best for them. I want every one of our players to go to the NFL and have a 10-year career and change the course of their life forever.
"To do that, you've got to be physically and emotionally and mentally ready to make that stride. It's not a developmental league, so you want to make sure they're in the right position."
The right side
The Vols played Saturday without Mays at right tackle and Javontez Spraggins at right guard but still rushed for 285 yards and 6.8 yards per carry. Freshman Jaylen Wright rushed 15 times for 112 yards and a touchdown, while starting sophomore Jabari Small had 15 carries for 103 yards and two scores.
Helping fill the void up front were Dayne Davis and Ollie Lane.
"I think that speaks to our staff that these kids can be put in a position of success," Heupel said. "I think it speaks to those guys who have stepped in, too. They have competed extremely hard, and they have taken advantage of the moment. It speaks to who they are when nobody's watching, too, because they have shown the ability to grow."
Said Small: "Those guys played hard. I was proud of the way we executed."
Tillman still rolling
Redshirt junior Cedric Tillman continued his roll with six receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns, with 76 of his yards coming after the catch.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas became the first Tennessee player with a touchdown reception in six straight games since Joey Kent in 1995.
"It's just been very exciting to see the whole team buy into what Coach Heupel has been doing," Tillman said. "We have some young players who were in their first year in the system, so the future is bright."
Tillman is facing an NFL dilemma as well but said "that decision will be made later."
Odds and ends
Tennessee was picked fifth in the SEC East before the season but finished third at 4-4. ... Heupel on running back Tiyon Evans entering the transfer portal: "I wish him nothing but the best." ... Tennessee's 466 points during the regular season rank third in program history. ... Jackson on whether he would sit out the bowl game: "Oh, no. I love football too much."