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Vols’ Seniors Are Biggest Key to Tennessee’s Turnaround

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee only has 13 fourth and fifth-year seniors on their football roster. But almost all of them have played a major role in the Vols’ turnaround this season.

At the beginning of this season, Tennessee’s small group of seniors were some of the most criticized players on UT’s roster. Players like Nigel Warrior, Darrell Taylor, Marquez Callaway, and Dominick Wood-Anderson were called into question because of their lack of production or inability to make big plays when needed.

Now, Vol fans can’t picture the 2019 season turning out the way it has without these older Vols.

A few of Tennessee’s senior players haven’t contributed this season, but that’s largely been due to injury or the decision to redshirt and return for next season. Wide receiver Brandon Johnson played in a handful of games early this season but made the selfless choice to redshirt this year and come back next season to help bolster the depth of Tennessee’s wideouts. On the injury front, defensive lineman Emmit Gooden, defensive back Baylen Buchanan, and running back Carlin Fils-aime have all missed the year due to injuries, but all three are expected to take medical redshirts and return next season.

As for the rest of UT’s senior class, they’ve all made huge contributions throughout the season, and most have been full-time starters.

Of the nine remaining healthy seniors, all but one (Tyler Byrd) has been a full-time starter for Tennessee this season when healthy. Even Byrd has left his mark on this season, however, as he started at wide receiver against South Carolina and snagged the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Vols’ 20-10 victory over Mississippi State. He also blocked a punt against UT-Chattanooga that was recovered by fellow senior wideout Brandon Johnson for a touchdown.

Jauan Jennings, Darrell Taylor, Riley Lovingood, Brandon Kennedy, Marquez Callaway, Dominick Wood-Anderson, Nigel Warrior, and Daniel Bituli have all been the main starters at their respective positions when healthy, and almost all of those players have made some of the biggest impacts on Tennessee’s roster this season.

Jennings leads the team in every major statistical category as a receiver, and he’s in or around the top five of every major statistical category for a receiver in the SEC. Marquez Callaway leads the entire SEC in yards per catch and has been the most dynamic jump-ball receiver in quite some time for Tennessee. Daniel Bituli leads the team in tackles despite missing the first two games of the season, and Darrell Taylor leads the team in sacks. Nigel Warrior has turned in easily his best year as a Vol in his career, leading the team in interceptions and trailing only Bituli in total tackles. Brandon Kennedy has been a full-time starter at center and was the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after his performance in UT’s 41-21 win over South Carolina.

Lovingood and Wood-Anderson may not have the same statistical achievements as the previously mentioned seniors, but they’ve been important nonetheless. Lovingood has been Tennessee’s primary long snapper and has earned praise from Jeremy Pruitt time and time again, and Wood-Anderson has tied his career-high in catches (17) and has a new career-high in receiving yards (221).

But the impact Tennessee’s seniors have had this season goes beyond the stat sheet.

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Aside from Jennings — who has been lauded by fans as a leader since the 2018 season — the Vols’ small class of seniors were often criticized for seeming to lack a lot of leadership qualities. Most believed Tennessee wouldn’t have wilted down the stretch last season if they had better leaders, and they wouldn’t have started off this season so disastrously if not for the same.

Since then, though, UT’s upperclassmen have stepped up and provided that much-needed leadership to a large group of younger Vols on the team.

Jennings, Bituli, Warrior, and Taylor have all been praised for their leadership at one point or anything this season, as has Kennedy (and though he’s not a senior, junior offensive lineman Trey Smith has been an effective leader, too). This group helped galvanize Tennessee’s roster and guided them though a near-disastrous start.

On the field, Tennessee’s seniors have been some of the most consistent contributors and biggest play-makers this season, and they’ve been some of the biggest reasons why the Vols have gone from 1-4 to suddenly winners of four-straight games and five of their last six contests.

Jennings has put together phenomenal performances time and time again both as a wide receiver and wildcat quarterback, Callaway has brought down seemingly impossible catches on multiple occasions, Daniel Bituli has been a tackling machine and helped make the pivotal stop at the goal line against Kentucky in the fourth quarter, Darrell Taylor has been disruptive in important games with five of his seven sacks coming against SEC teams, Brandon Kennedy has been a consistent presence in the interior of the Vols’ offensive line, and Nigel Warrior has shown a massive amount of growth throughout the season with his ability to make open-field tackles and pick off passes.

The legacy Tennessee’s seniors will leave behind will be a somewhat complicated one. The fourth and fifth-year players on UT’s roster all joined Tennessee when things looked like they were rolling along, and an SEC East title or two seemed likely during their UT careers.

Instead, these seniors have gone through one of the most tumultuous times in Tennessee football history.

That’s all in the past, though. Jeremy Pruitt is big on saying that past teams don’t define his current squad, and his seniors have taken that to heart. They haven’t let their past failures or the failures of past teams get in the way of turning things around.

Tennessee’s small group of seniors could’ve quit after falling to 1-3 then to 1-4. They could’ve said, “Well, I only have a few more months of this, let’s just get it over with.” Instead, they saw those last couple months as an opportunity to change the narrative not only around themselves, but around their team and the Tennessee football program.

Other players — and Tennessee’s coaches — have been pivotal in the Vols’ reversal of fortune this season. But none have made quite the same impact as UT’s seniors. And that’s how they should be remembered.



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