The Tennessee football team has flipped a switch over the past few weeks. After starting the season off with a dreadful 1-4 that included losses to Georgia State and BYU, the Vols have put together a 4-1 stretch that now has them one win away from a bowl game.
It’s evident that is a very different football team than what showed up at the start of the season. It’s hard to look past the impact that the seniors are having on this football team, especially over the past few weeks. When the Vols needed it the most, the seniors have stepped up and put the Vols in the driver’s seat to make it to a bowl game.
This senior class has dealt with a lot of ups and downs throughout their four years on Rocky Top. They experienced a great first season, starting out 5-0 and making it to the Music City Bowl where they finished 9-4. The next season was a trainwreck, though. They had to deal with the worst season in Tennessee football history and watched Butch Jones get fired. Last season, they started out under first-time head coach Jeremy Pruitt, where they had a number of ups and downs, beating two ranked teams in Auburn and Kentucky, but had a disappointing loss against Vanderbilt, ending their bowl game hopes.
After the sloppy start, it looked like it was going to be another disappointing season on Rocky Top, but this senior class has led the Vols to a hot stretch as they go into the bye week. It’s sad to think that Vol fans will be saying bye to fan favorites in Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Daniel Bituli, Darrell Taylor, and Nigel Warrior. All five of those players have had a huge impact on this team, especially during this recent 4-1 stretch. A number of these guys are at the top or leading in a specific category in the SEC.
It feels like Jennings has been here since the start of the decade, but Vol fans are fine with that, as he’s pieced together a great senior season. Jennings will always be remembered for his Hail Mary catch against Georgia in 2016, but he’s leaving a lasting impact on this program after the season he’s having this year. He not only leads the Vols in almost every receiving category, but he’s also near the top of the SEC in a number of categories. He’s reeled in 50 catches on the year, doubling guys like Callaway and Josh Palmer. Jennings has 771 receiving yards on the season, which is 5th best in the SEC.
Callaway has been one of the most consistent receivers for the Vols during his time on Rocky Top and has really emerged throughout the past five-plus weeks. He has some of the purest hands on the team, and we were shown that during the Kentucky game this past weekend, as he grabbed every 50/50 ball that was thrown his way. During the Georgia game, he finished with three receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown. He made his presence known in the South Carolina game when he finished with three receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown, as well as a punt return for a score. Callaway finished with four receptions for 103 yards and a huge touchdown for the Vols on Saturday as they came back to beat the Wildcats.
Defensively, a number of seniors have had a huge impact so far. The defense has continued to look better and better as the weeks go on, including second-half shutouts against South Carolina and Kentucky. The defense has seen contributions from underclassmen like Henry To’o To’o, Bryce Thompson, and Alontae Taylor, but it’s hard to look past the senior leadership in this defense.
Darrell Taylor has been a vocal leader on the defense for the Vols. As an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he’s been all over the field, especially over the past few weeks. After his sack against Kentucky, he has now seven sacks on the season, which leads the SEC. Taylor has really emerged over the past few games, posting at least one sack in four of the past five. He finished with two sacks against Mississippi State and South Carolina and has posted a sack apiece in the wins against UAB and Kentucky. He’s been a huge part of the defense over past few seasons and could make a difference in these next two games to finish off the season.
Despite missing the first two games of the season due to a knee scope, Bituli has had the most impact on this defense and has the stats to back up that statement. Bituli has led the Vols in tackles over the past two seasons and is looking to lead them in that category yet again. He made an immediate impact once he returned from his injury, posting six or more tackles against Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi State. Bituli has really shined over the past few weeks though, posting a 15-tackle game against South Carolina. He also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to help the Vols seal the victory over the Gamecocks. He made himself known in the Kentucky game, finishing with 19 tackles, including 10 solo tackles. With that 19-tackle performance, he is known fifth in the SEC in tackles per game.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) November 10, 2019
Warrior, despite the slow start, has really made a statement over his past few games. He’s seen a ton of playing time during his time in a Tennessee jersey and that experience has shown as the season’s progressed. He has 48 tackles on the season and has been a good leader for those in the secondary, but especially at the safety position. Warrior also leads Tennessee in interceptions with four. Those four interceptions are tied for the lead in the SEC with Florida’s Donovan Stiner, USC’S Israel Mukuamu, and LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. He’s also helped lead the Tennessee defense to 14 interceptions, which is tied with Florida for the SEC lead in that category.
These seniors have dealt with a lot of adversity during their time in a Tennessee uniform. They’ve dealt with a number of ups, and a great deal of bad, but to watch these players grow and shape this team for the future has been very fun to watch.