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Tennessee football: For Josh Heupel, Missouri was about recognizing what the seniors built

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Everybody talks about adversity on Senior Day and what those players overcame. However, it rings true for this Tennessee football class more than most. All senior classes are already unique right now for having players who fought through the COVID 2020 year.

For UT specifically, players had to stick with the program after a 3-7 2020, the Jeremy Pruitt fiasco and the underwhelming hire of Josh Heupel. Two seasons later, they have the program ranked No. 5 across the board.

They made sure their final home game was one to remember, as they set a record for points in the Heupel era and total yards in a game en route to a 66-24 win over the Missouri Tigers. Heupel said he and this senior class are connected in a unique way.

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“This thing has grown pretty quickly,” he said in his postgame press conference. “Can’t say thank you to them enough, not just what they do on the field but who they are and how they go about their business everyday.”

Beyond just overcoming program turmoils, some seniors had to steal their starting job. Hendon Hooker committed to Pruitt 11 days before he was fired. He then lost the quarterback battle to Joe Milton III last year.

Now, he’s tied for first in the Heisman race and on track to shatter Peyton Manning’s 1997 single-season total offense and total yardage records. Heupel said Hooker is a great story and a great lesson for others on the team.

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“He becomes the guy, continues to grow, competes every day, shows up and works, becomes a great leader,” he said. “He’ll be one of the greats here however it ends out.”

Hooker had one of his best offensive outings Saturday, completing 25-of-35 passes for 355 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He rushed for 50 yards and another score.

At the end of the game, the Tennessee football signal caller channeled Manning in 1997, got up on the ladder, and directed the band. He did it with Milton behind him, a show of solidarity.

“I had my band moment; I’m going to let him have that one,” Heupel said. “I do remember Peyton being up on that ladder and doing it. It’s a pretty cool moment and one that he’ll remember forever.”

Two of Hooker’s touchdown passes were to Princeton Fant, which is another Senior Day story. Fant, LaTrell Bumphus, Cheyenne Labruzza and Solon Page III have been through more than just the Pruitt fiasco.

Those four committed to the Vols in 2017, so they were part of the Butch Jones disaster. They have been through four head coaches, one of whom was interim, and four athletic directors.

In the process, they went from the worst season in program history, the only time they went winless in SEC play, in 2017, to one of the best seasons in program history. Fant switched positions three times in the process.

Finally, he found his niche as a tight end who effectively plays fullback in Heupel’s system. His two scores Saturday came with his daughter in the stadium.

“Those are moments that, as a dad, you’re going to cherish,” Heupel said. “As a kid, I know having been on the other side of that, that means the world. At the end of the day, those are the little things that spur you on to do things the right way and continue to fight to get better.”

Bumphus also switched positions multiple times through this tumultuous period. He has always fought through multiple injuries throughout his career.

Like Fant, he found his niche playing defensive tackle for the Vols this year, and he has become a huge part of the line. Heupel said he would be successful in whatever he does going forward because of his mentality.

“I don’t know if there is anybody that cares about the Power T, the players and the locker room more than he does,” he said. “That’s one of the most selfless people that I’ve ever been around.”

Jerome Carvin, Trevon Flowers, Paxton Brooks and Chase McGrath are other seniors who will be out of eligibility after this year. Cedric Tillman, Byron Young, Jacob Warren and Darnell Wright also took part in Senior Day.

All eight of those players have been regulars in the Tennessee football depth chart ever since Heupel took over. Carvin, Brooks and Flowers joined in 2018, with Carvin and Flowers among Pruitt’s earliest commitments.

“I’m super grateful, thankful, appreciative of what they’ve meant to us and to me,” Heupel said of the class. “We’re not here without those guys and what they’ve done.”

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