By Mark Nagi
Back in my previous life I was a sports anchor/reporter at WATE-TV. In 2002 I was anchoring during the NFL Draft, and boy oh boy was that a busy time.
The Vols were coming off an 11-2 season and the roster was stocked with pro talent. I had edited together short videos of all the players that could potentially be selected in the draft.
That video came in handy. Three Tennessee players were among the first 15 picks (Albert Haynesworth, Donte’ Stallworth, John Henderson). In all, ten Vols heard their names called that year.
This wasn’t a surprise of course… the Vols football program was still rolling at that time, only three years removed from a national championship. You felt that this is the way it would always be…
But it’s a shame that we don’t know we are in the good ‘ol days until we leave them.
In 2015, 2016 and 2019, the Vols didn’t have a single player selected in the NFL Draft. In 2020 and 2021 the numbers improved a bit, but only two former Vols were taken each year.
Where have you gone, Peyton Manning… Vol Nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.
But last week was a good week for the Tennessee brand. For only the second time since 2010, at least five Vols were selected in the draft.
Cornerback Alontae Taylor went to New Orleans in Round 2. Receiver Velus Jones Jr. was picked by Chicago in the third round. Defensive tackle Matthew Butler was a Las Vegas selection in Round 5. And in Round 6, offensive lineman Cade Mays was picked by Carolina and safety Theo Jackson stayed close to home with the Titans.
Taylor’s story is a long and winding one. The Coffee County product originally committed under Butch Jones in 2017, but de-committed after Jones’s firing. Taylor re-committed to Jeremy Pruitt a few weeks later and was a huge get for the Class of 2021.
After Pruitt’s firing, many Vols transferred, but Taylor stuck around as Josh Heupel took control of the fledgling program. Taylor was a team leader and worked his way up the draft boards to become a second day NFL Draft selection.
Not bad for a high school quarterback who came to Tennessee to play wide receiver and was almost immediately moved to the secondary.
“Whenever my phone started buzzing, I jumped up and quieted everyone down,” Taylor said after the big moment. “It’s amazing just knowing my dream is coming true. Whenever they announced my name, my grandma is not here and passed away, and I had a picture sitting in front of me, and I gave her a kiss. She was the first person I made sure I gave a kiss to before hugging my mom.”
“It’s a true blessing with all of the history there, even one of the great returners, Devin Hester,” Jones said of his new team, the Bears. “It’s a big role, but I’ve been ready for this all my life. I started football at four, always been strong in my faith, and I’m just real excited and I can’t wait to get up there.”
“You should expect some high effort, high energy,” Butler told Raider fans. “I can talk about football all day, but I’m also going to pour into the Raiders organization and let the Raiders organization pour into me. And do my best to be a leader in the locker room and be willing to be led by guys who’ve been doing this for a long time. Obviously, everybody wants to be on top, and that’s exactly what I’m wanting. I’m going to let these next couple of months, and hopefully the next few years, do the talking. I expect great things out of myself so hopefully you expect great things out of me too.”
The NFL Draft isn’t a perfect representation of the direction of the college football program, but considering the struggles of the Tennessee football the past couple of decades, this year’s results must be taken as a positive sign for the future of the Vols.