Way back in 2009, I sat in the pressbox for Tennessee’s 31-16 win over a 2-10 Vanderbilt team that was largely in question late in the fourth quarter. But senior defensive tackle Wes Brown — his knees by then a painful mess of linguine — picked off an errant pass and rumbled 25 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. He dragged a Commodores offensive player the final 10 yards of his rumble, failing to be denied his moment.
I spoke with Wes’s parents and wrote a story about the play that turned into a story about his love affair with the Vols. Sure, we talked about the play, but that was secondary.
Here’s the thing about Wes: It wasn’t about “his” moment. It was never about him. I’ve struck up sort of an e-friendship with him in the years following the completion of his career, and we’ve spoken from time to time about his love for Tennessee, his passion about the Vols.
We have a lot in common to say the least.
Well, other than the fact he’s a former 4-star defender wanted by virtually every team in the SEC, and I am a short, fat dude who tries to string together words into coherent sentences. We both grew up on the Tennessee-Alabama line, had family who shaped our beliefs in the importance of Vols football, live and die with every play and absolutely despise Alabama. I like to think if I was ever talented enough to put on the orange and white (not even close) my career would have mirrored Wes’s.
He wanted to win more than anybody. Tennessee meant — means — so much to him. Wes impacted plenty of plays throughout a pain-filled career where, many times, he had to get days of treatment to even go out there and play at all, but he still went down in Tennessee lore. It’s impressive the things he accomplished, and he battled through some frustrating years to be a big part of Lane Kiffin’s ’09 rejuvenated UT team.
Is it sad that’s probably the last time I felt about a player the way I feel about this year’s group of seniors? Yes, it is. After all, that was unbelievably a decade ago. And there have been plenty of excellent UT players, heroes and even a legend or two sprinkled in, but this year’s group of seniors are different. They’ve bought into Jeremy Pruitt’s mentality, persevered through perhaps the most disappointing start to a Tennessee team in my lifetime, and they’ve got the potential to truly have a turnaround season.
No, they aren’t ever going to be part of something special in Knoxville, but it’s possible they’ve built the ground floor. (And, no, we’re not going to go into the bricks and foundation talk that were recited by me and others through the first couple of Butch Jones years.) Those senior classes fell apart, transferred, began to realize the carny barker’s slogans were shams. Whether you want to buy into what Pruitt is selling or not, there’s no question he knows football. There are some huge learning curves, and we’re still seeing that with his time-management struggles and some personnel decisions, but Pruitt is a known developer of talent, and that is shining through.
Look no further than the senior class. That’s why we’re here. Some of them have always been contributors who’ve blossomed into stars. For others, the light has only recently come on. But many of these guys are worthy of your attendance and your high-volume cheers on Senior Day tomorrow in Neyland Stadium.
It’s just a matter of which one — or ones — are going to have their Wes Brown moment. Even though the Vols are more than three-touchdown favorites, Vanderbilt has beaten UT three times in a row, and the game can be ugly, rugged and in need of a gamebreaker. It’s a good thing several of the guys playing their final game in Neyland Stadium are capable.
For Jauan Jennings, it will be the last time running through that Neyland Stadium tunnel and through the T to the roar of approving fans who have anointed him among their top all-time players. He’s certainly worthy. There hasn’t been a player will Tennessee to more wins other than perhaps Joshua Dobbs in the past decade. But, more than Dobbs, Jennings connects with fans; he walks the walk and plays with a “dog” mentality. When the pressure turns up, Jennings is right in the thick of it, and he rises to the occasion.
Like Wes Brown, Jauan gets it. Case in point when asked about UT fans and what they mean to him his week, he chirped:
“Everything,” he told Ben McKee. “Without them, it could be the complete opposite. I could not be here right now if the fans did not have my back. That’s why, every down, I give my all. It means more than just me.”
Through the coaching changes, him getting booted off the team for a tirade under interim coach Brady Hoke, the reVOLt, Pruitt’s first two years and more, Jennings has emerged as a player we all love because he plays with the defiance we feel. Again, he is worthy of our admiration and adoration.
Then there’s Daniel Bituli. This is a guy whose family fled the Congo in a life-or-death situation and settled in Nashville, Tennessee. So the ebbs and flows of his Tennessee career paled in comparison to the things that really matter. Still, he has emerged as a special player who has helped UT turn a corner on defense and become one of the stingiest units in the SEC over the last half of the season. Want a signature moment? How about his goal-line stop of Lynn Bowden that gave the Vols a win? He’s the leading tackler, the emotional leader and should play a long time on the next level.
Jennings’ wideout mate Marquez Callaway has always been a deep threat, one of the best in the nation at high-pointing a ball and coming down with 50-50 throws. It’s remarkable the number of times Jarrett Guarantano has asked him to make a play with his pass, and Callaway obliged. Just think of what he could have been without so many quarterback issues throughout his career. If there’s one player I feel like should have another year of eligibility it would be Quez. It just doesn’t seem like he should be a senior, and he’s going to be missed next year. He’s just another player Butch Jones should be ashamed of burning a year of eligibility when he had one catch for 13 yards back in 2016.
Darrell Taylor has come a long way from WGWTFA to now. As a lanky-but-talented 4-star recruit, we all had high hopes for the pass-rusher. He was a smack-talker early in his career (see the acronym), but he never really lived up to his potential until last season. Now, as a senior, he led the league in sacks much of the year but now is fourth, a half sack behind a three-way tie in first place.
That brings us to Nigel Warrior, a player we’ve all probably ripped more than anybody besides Guarantano over his career. The safety made us wait until National Signing Day to see whether he was going to follow in the footsteps of father and Vol legend Dale Carter or go to Georgia, Auburn or Ohio State. Once he chose UT, we had high hopes, but the light simply never came on. A few games into this season, it did, and Warrior has begun to play at a high level. His NFL potential is obvious, and he’s making plays all over the field. It’s just a shame we don’t have another year of it. Things started to materialize late for Warrior, but it’s just in time to help save this season.
Though Dominick Wood-Anderson‘s two years in Knoxville probably haven’t gone the way we all thought they would, the tight end was one of Pruitt’s first big signees, and he has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his couple of seasons. Yes, we’re all going to wonder what might have been with DWA’s career, but he has caught some passes and could have a big career on the next level.
Then there’s Tyler Byrd, and you shouldn’t forget about him. Like the others, he had his hero moment this year when he took a short pass and raced 39 yards for a clinching fourth-quarter touchdown in a 20-10 win over Mississippi State that turned the season. For a player who had so much expected of him but was jerked around from offense to defense back to offense and had issues with his hands and with finding a home, it was satisfying to see him be a part of a big win. He stuck around, and it paid off.
“Just got to keep hard working, and things don’t go your way all the time,” he told GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan. “But you just keep fighting, and hopefully the plays will come your way sometimes.”
That quote personifies the entire Vols senior class. All they’ve done is give us reasons to be excited heading into tomorrow’s game with Vanderbilt, made us hope, and it’ll be up to the classes behind them to show if they’ve spread the table for the feast. The way the past decade of UT football has gone, there’s no telling either way.
But they’ve done their part. They’ve given their all.