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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive back Alontae Taylor (2) looks up after praying before kickoff agianst BYU during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

HOOVER, Ala. — It's easy to grow cynical about the future of big-time college athletics, especially Power Five conference football and men's basketball.

Whether it be the transfer portal, Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) or begging off a bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft, there's a growing sense, fair or not, that the elite athlete cares more about himself than his school.

Just don't count Tennessee senior defensive back Alontae Taylor among that group.

Taylor grew up in Manchester, Tennessee, where he scored 75 career touchdowns at Coffee County High School, so it's fair to say his blood ran UT Orange long before he started eight games, including the Vols' opener, as a true freshman in 2018.

Still, he also watched numerous teammates and classmates head to the transfer portal after Jeremy Pruitt was let go as the UT coach last January. A legitimate NFL prospect, Taylor surely had options to move on to programs that figure to be far more successful than this season's Vols.

Then again, in Taylor's own words, "This is my state. I'm from the state of Tennessee, and the University of Tennessee means a lot to me. Wearing orange and white is a privilege and it's bigger than me, and wearing that Power T on my chest is bigger than me. Staying here versus going somewhere else was never really too hard of a decision to make. I knew I wanted to stay at the University of Tennessee."

These words were commonplace among athletes 20 or 30 years ago, especially those who remained in their home states to attend college. Not so much today.

That's not to say Taylor is blind to the many reasons some players choose to move on, as one might expect from a two-time All-SEC Academic selection.

"Talking to those guys, those guys reached out to me, I reached out to those guys and just wished them the best," he said of those who left the program during his turn at SEC Football Media Days. "I'm big on making sure you do what's best for your family and yourself. Seeing those guys go was hard just because we built that relationship, and from that, we'll have a family forever."

As if that exemplary perspective wasn't enough, there was Taylor's view of Name, Image and Likeness, which certainly has the potential to destabilize a locker room as much as it may stabilize an individual's bank account. For proof, Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tuesday that Tide quarterback Bryce Young, who has yet to start a game, has already locked up nearly $1 million in NIL deals.

"I'm not so focused on how much money I can make on my name right now," Taylor said. "(I'm more focused) on what can my team do so we can be the best team come the fall."

Yet as refreshing as those words are, Taylor wasn't the only one at Tuesday's SEC media event espousing team over self. He wasn't even the only Vol to do so prior to new coach Josh Heupel's first season in Knoxville.

Velus Jones Jr. — whose receiving and kick returning talents would surely have given him numerous transfer portal options — said of the importance of teamwork: "Those are my brothers. Without brothers and bonding and connection, you have nothing. You stand no chance. And I feel like our team has come a long way. After workouts and stuff, people probably won't leave the locker room until an hour later because we're talking about anything, everybody just talking, laughing. I feel like that's what it's all about, connection."

Then there's Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels, the Heisman Trophy favorite according to BetOnline, which has Daniels at 5-1, to win college football's ultimate individual prize, followed by Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler at 7-1, with Bryce Young of Alabama and Ohio State's CJ Stroud tied for third at 10-1.

Daniels and Jones Jr. were previously teammates at Southern Cal. Said Jones of Daniels: "He's like a brother to me. Yeah, me and JT, we hung out a lot, played video games together, he was always at my apartment. Couldn't get him out. I tried to kick him out a lot."

Said Daniels of Jones: "Velus and I are really good friends. So when I was going into my freshman year — I graduated a whole year early — so I didn't get to do spring. During that spring period going into USC, I stayed with Velus. Velus and I have been really good friends since I was 17."

But it's what Daniels said about NIL that should give all of us hope that money isn't yet more important than teammates.

"I think for me and really a lot of guys that I've talked to, being that it came out July 1, it makes it pretty difficult to do anything for it," said Daniels. "Like for me, season mode kicks in June 1, so we're fully in season mode. I wish I could give you more about NIL, but it's just not a huge focus for a lot of people that I've talked to."

As Taylor began his turn with the media, someone asked him what he was most looking forward to this coming season, which most hope will be far different than last year's COVID-19 ravaged campaign.

Almost instantly, he flashed his 1,000-watt smile and replied, "I'm super excited just to be able to have 102,000 people scream our names again, being able to run through the T and do the Vol walk is exciting. The biggest thing is being with this team and having my family come to the games as I go into my senior year."

With mindsets such as those, there may yet be hope for big-time college football to remain what some always believed it to be, or hoped it was.

If nothing else, the Big Orange Nation should have no problem focusing on the name, image and likeness of Alontae Taylor, whether he's focused on it or not.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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