By Alex Norman
After a couple of seasons in which the Tennessee Volunteers didn’t hear the name of one player called at the NFL Draft, the Vols were back in a big way in 2017.
The Vols had six players picked in that draft. Running back Alvin Kamara would be named AP offensive rookie of the year, after gaining 1,554 yards from scrimmage to go with 14 touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints. Defensive end Derek Barnett would recover a fumble late in Super Bowl LII that helped the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots. Josh Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and Josh Malone were all picked as well.
Come April the Vols won’t have nearly that kind of an impact on draft weekend, but there are a few players expected to find new homes in the pros.
On Monday, March 29th, 22 former Vols took part in the annual NFL Pro Day at the UT football complex.
One of the guys to watch for is Rashaan Gaulden, the former Vols Nickelback that could have returned for a fifth season, but decided to turn pro. Gaulden collected 140 tackles in his Tennessee career, 133 of them coming in 2016 and 2017, when he became one of the leaders on this Vols team.
“It really goes back to the guys that were in front of me,” said Gaulden. “Guys like Derek Barnett and Cam Sutton showed me that in the offseason you really have to take it to another level as far as film study. You have to get on the field and get extra time in, and you also have to step up as a leader and be able to rally your defensive backs and get them on the same page.”
This is a running back heavy draft, but it would not be a surprise to hear John Kelly’s name called. Kelly was woefully underutilized with the Vols, but still rushed for 1573 yards in three seasons on Rocky Top.
“A lot of teams have compared me to Alvin Kamara just as far as what we can do for an offense,” Kamara said. “I definitely feel like I was able to develop at Tennessee, being able to go out and catch the ball a little bit more, because now in the NFL there’s a lot of running backs that have to catch the ball and you have to give an easy target for the quarterback.”
Defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie has a lot to prove. He didn’t live up to the hype at Tennessee, but now listed at 6 foot 3 and 320 pounds, you’d expect him to get a shot to prove that what he showed with the Vols wasn’t his peak. McKenzie collected 72 tackles and three sacks in three seasons in Knoxville.
“When you lose 50 pounds, you’re moving better,” said McKenzie. “And now, I’m focusing on football 100 percent of the time. It’s really easy to focus in on what you have to do and focus in on your body and what you’re putting in your body, how you’re performing, and things like that. Now I have a lot more time to pay attention to myself.”
Tennessee fans clamored for kick returner Evan Berry to get some chances on offense, but that opportunity never came his way. At NFL Pro Day, Berry ran routes as a wide receiver. “I was planning on doing both earlier on,” Berry said. “But I decided that I wanted to put my all of my focus into one thing and do that to the best of my ability without having to worry about two things at once. I chose what I really felt comfortable with and what I really wanted to do, and that’s how I narrowed it down.”
So, how many Vols will be taken in the upcoming NFL Draft? We’ll find out April 26-28.