NFL Draft Proves Vols Are Back

By Mark Nagi

You might have heard the jokes about Texas football. Every time they win a game against a somewhat decent opponent, you hear the “Texas is Back!” bellows from their fans and a lot of the national sports media.

But then they lose to Kansas, proving that no, good sirs, Texas is not back.

In terms of the Tennessee Volunteers, there have been way too many false starts to count, but today we have more tangible proof that the Vols are indeed worthy of being back in the national conversation.

The NFL Draft used to be filled annually with Tennessee talent. Think about 2002, when the Vols had three players selected in the first 15 picks, with John Henderson, Donte Stallworth and Albert Haynesworth getting the call. In all nine UT players were taken in that Draft.

The Vols haven’t been very busy come draft weekend lately. Yes, in 2017 Tennessee did have six players picked, all in the first four rounds. But otherwise, they hadn’t had more than three players selected in a single draft since 2010. And in three drafts (2015, 2016, 2019), Tennessee didn’t have a single player picked.

Fast forward to the 2023 NFL Draft and you saw a whole lot of orange and white. Kicking things off, Tennessee offensive lineman Darnell Wright became the 47th first-round draft pick in Tennessee history when he was grabbed by the Chicago Bears 10th overall.

He is also the 14th top-10 draft pick in Tennessee football history and the highest drafted Vol offensive lineman since Charles McRae and Antone Davis went 7th and 8th respectively in 1991.

“You see on tape, I’m big and strong,” Wright told the media the night he was drafted. “I don’t think people will realize once they really get to see more of me, they’ll see how athletic I am and that I can play both sides as needed. I know I’m coming into a room. I just want to earn the respect of those guys first, but I can probably play anywhere on the line. My athleticism will speak for itself. I just want to get better and better at my technique.”

Then in the third round, four Tennessee players were selected during a 10-pick span. Quarterback Hooker went to the Detroit Lions. Wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman were taken by the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns, respectively. Edge rusher Byron Young was taken by the Los Angeles Rams.

In those first 3 rounds, Tennessee had five players taken, second most in the country.

“Me being a servant leader and genuinely enjoying people succeed—that’s something that my previous teammates know about me,” Hooker told reporters. “I am going to be a good friend and a good teammate no matter what’s going on. Leadership starts at the quarterback position. However my role on the Lions goes, I just want to come in and soak up how to be a pro and how things are ordered so that when my number is called, I can step into that big leadership position. I will be prepared for it.”

“The Giants, they wanted explosive playmakers and that’s what I want to bring and add to the team,” said Hyatt.

“I’m fired up,” Tillman said. “You know (quarterback) Deshaun Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know all my teammates and new brothers, new coaches and stuff, so I’m excited.”

“I feel like, honestly, I’m a very relentless pass rusher,” said Young. “Really fast get-off. Explosive. I feel like that’s one of the traits I bring to the table. Just my power. Speed and power. Some moves I can’t wait to use… ghost, long arm, spin move. Those are some of my favorite moves. So, I can’t wait to try that at the next level and use them.”

These five players helped Tennessee achieve great things in 2022 and laid the foundation for the future of the Vols program. Expectations are that in the future, many other current Vols will join them in the NFL.

And if that happens, the Vols will stay in their current place amongst the SEC’s elite.