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Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee outside linebacker Byron Young goes through a practice drill on Haslam Field.

KNOXVILLE — What if?

We've all played that game. What if we'd gone to College B instead of College A? What if we'd married Sweetheart B instead of Sweetheart A? What if we'd become a teacher instead of a salesman?

Regarding a certain defensive demon on this 125th University of Tennessee football team, what if Byron Young hadn't spied the flyer promoting an open tryout for the football team at Georgia Military College while he was working as an assistant manager at a Dollar General Store within the Peach State?

Or what if he'd just ignored it rather than pursuing it?

Moreover, what if he'd felt so sorry for himself after the prep school he was attending to attempt to impress college recruiters — Gulf Coast Sports Academy in Mobile, Alabama — closed after two football games his senior year and he'd just given up the dream of one day playing the sport at its highest levels.

"I don't think that way," Young said Tuesday of whether or not he sometimes plays the "What If?" game when it comes to that flyer. "My mom always says that everything happens for a reason. With that flyer, I just feel like it was meant to be."

Until Tennessee Tech arrived at Neyland Stadium last Saturday afternoon, it looked as if Young's UT football career might never happen. Those two games at the now-defunct Gulf Coast Sports Academy somehow encouraged the NCAA to suspend Young for the first two games of this season against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh.

And that injustice — because, really, when is the NCAA ever really just when it comes to young people? — came on top of Young being unable to play the 2020 season at Georgia Military College because it was canceled due to COVID-19, which meant the only film that Tennessee, Auburn or any other school showing interest in Young had on him was from his freshman season in 2019.

By the time news arrived prior to the opener that Young would have to sit out at least two games, his only thought was, "I've been through a lot. It seems like there's always something else."

But somewhat surprisingly the NCAA relented. "B.Y.," as his teammates and coaches know him, was finally cleared to play against the Golden Eagles. To celebrate that event, the linebacker went out and tied for the team lead in tackles against TTU, notching the same six as Aubrey Solomon.

"I leaned on my family," he said of the stress brought on by the NCAA issues. "They kept me uplifted."

Playing as he did against the Golden Eagles, Young should further uplift a Big Orange defense that has already shocked the world by limiting opponents to 54.3 rushing yards a game heading into Saturday night's showdown at Florida against the No. 11 Gators. That stat has the Vols currently ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense.

Of course, Florida — which gashed top-ranked Alabama for 258 rushing yards and more than 400 yards total in last weekend's 31-29 loss to the Tide — is averaging an NCAA-best 381 yards on the ground. So the Big Orange Immovable Object is about to meet the Gators' Irresistible Force, and possibly once more without injured quarterback Joe Milton to spark the Vols offense.

"This is why I came to Tennessee, to compete," Young said. "For me, (facing Florida is about) containing the edge. Keeping the quarterback (Emory Jones) in the pocket. He is a good runner, both (Jones and fellow QB Anthony Richardson) are good runners. So, we've got to contain them, that's probably the biggest issue."

Sixth-year senior defensive lineman Ja'Quain Blakely is confident Young is up to the challenge.

"B.Y. can do some things," Blakely said on Tuesday. "He's quick. He has a great attention to detail."

Added defensive line coach Rodney Garner: "You can tell he has a presence, and you can feel him in the game. Now, he's got to get out there and work on minor details and things it's going to take for him to play at a high level in this conference."

That willingness to work has never been a problem.

Asked what his best attributes are, Young — who's gained 25 pounds of muscle since arriving on Rocky Top — said, "My speed, my quickness, my energy."

But that energy isn't on constant display to secure his success only.

Recalling the small town of Georgetown, S.C., where he grew up, Young said, "I feel like I'm kind of a role model. Where I'm from, not a lot of people make it. I'm the first one in the community to really go to college and do what I do, so I feel like, yeah, it's a big help."

If Young continues on the path he's on, he may one day make it big enough at the highest level of his sport to own his own chain of Dollar General Stores rather than merely working at one.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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