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Tennessee football success in NFL Draft can help players already on the team

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Josh Heupel knows the importance of the NFL Draft for Tennessee football. No, this isn’t a recruiting piece.

Tennessee’s success in the draft can help the Vols’ program now. Remember UT’s past success and the development that occurred within the program?

When it was a player’s turn to lead, he knew what to do because of the players who had come before him. Leadership was passed down through the locker room.

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Joey Kent and Marcus Nash starred at wide receiver in the mid 1990s. After they left, it was time for Peerless Price, Jermaine Copeland and Cedrick Wilson to step up.

Charlie Garner, Aaron Hayden and James Stewart led the way at running back before Jay Graham took over.

Tennessee football has to continue to recruit at a high level to match the success of the ‘90s, but the culture now looks similar to the way it was when the program competed for titles.

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Rocky Top has had five players selected in each of the last two NFL drafts. That hasn’t happened in more than 15 years.

The success of players like Alontae Taylor, Darnell Wright, Hendon Hooker, and others offers a message to the players returning for 2023.

“It absolutely speaks to our current roster,” Heupel said this week at the Big Orange Caravan in Chattanooga. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. That’s not just while you’re playing with the ‘T’ on the side of your helmet.

“It puts you in a position to make a career out of this thing. Those guys that got drafted, it will be
a career.”

Those guys have created an opportunity for the next wave of leaders at Tennessee football.

Hooker showed Joe Milton III how to lead while Milton worked on his game under the coaches’ guidance.

The departure of receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman will create an opportunity for the next
group of receivers. Ramel Keyton showed last season he’s capable of stepping up when Tillman suffered an ankle

Hyatt is already an example of the next-man-up culture. In 2021, Hyatt failed to live up to the off-season hype that surrounded his name. Instead, Velus Jones Jr. shined from the slot position, which led to a third-round draft selection. Hyatt then put in the work and broke out in 2022.

Wright’s emergence as a standout last fall, leading to him being drafted in the first round last
week, is another example.

“The (returning players) that have been around these guys for two years saw the work that they put in,” Heupel said. “It changes the behavior. It changes the habits inside of our locker room.”

So who could be the top benefactors of their new opportunity?

Keyton has been mentioned, and Bru McCoy will see more of an opportunity as a returning starter.

How about Squirrel White? He’s already shown his playmaking ability, catching nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Orange Bowl after Hyatt decided to sit out.

Wright’s success should motivate Cooper Mays and Javontez Spraggins, two leaders on the interior of Tennessee’s offensive line.

Byron Young took advantage of an opportunity at Tennessee and turned it into a spot on the Los Angeles Rams. Will Tyler Baron or Roman Harrison, two senior edge rushers, do the same this fall?

The NFL success for a college program often turns into a recruiting discussion, and that matters. Coaches can sell draft success to recruits (and potential transfers).

However, don’t overlook the impact on players already on the team. Coaches need their top players to lead by example. Veterans have to show younger players how it’s done. Establish what’s expected.

Matthew Butler did that for Omari Thomas, Hooker for Milton and so on. That’s exactly what Heupel and his coaches need.

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