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Hooker: Tennessee Vols’ defense could change drastically by 2024

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Eligibility used to be so clear cut. Now, it’s more complicated than any Tennessee coach before Josh Heupel could have ever imagined.

The Vols have several prospects with eligibility remaining that they would welcome back, as well as others that might be better suited to pursue other opportunities.

Here are the defensive players on Tennessee’s roster that have very impactful decision to make in the near future. The Vols would like some sort of commitment from the players listed below by Dec 4, when the transfer portal opens and Tennessee’s coaches could potentially replace any departures.

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DE Tyler Baron

While Tennessee might like to get a decision from Baron soon, that might not be that simple. Baron would likely prefer to hear his draft grade before deciding between Tennessee and the NFL, where pass rushers are a huge commodity. If he’s projected as a mid-round selection, he’ll be tough to keep in Knoxville and the Vols are deep on the defensive front.

2024 Prediction: NFL

DB Warren Burrell

The Vols would certainly welcome Burrell back to a secondary that has struggled regularly under Heupel’s watch. Moreover, Burrell doesn’t seem to be in line to climb up any NFL mock drafts anytime soon.

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2024 Prediction: Tennessee

LB Kwauze Garland

Garland could get squeezed out by Tennessee, who needed better linebacker play this season and didn’t call on Garland. While the Vols need more production at linebacker, they could likely address that via player development, recruiting or the transfer portal.

Prediction: Other opportunities

DB Gabe Jeudy-Lally

Jeudy-Lally didn’t become a superstar after transferring from BYU following the 2022 season. However, he can play any position in the Vols’ secondary so he’d be welcome back. It would also make senses for Jeudy-Lally to return, as long as the Vols want him to, since he’s not viewed as a top NFL draft prospect.

2024 Prediction: Tennessee

DB Tamarion McDonald

The Vols wouldn’t likely turn down their starter at the STAR position. Moreover, McDonald doesn’t look like an NFL player just yet.  Another season in college seems like the obvious choice.

2024 Prediction: Tennessee

LB Keenan Pili (Would need NCAA exemption)

Pili is 25-years-old and already married so he might be over the college football experience. He would also need an NCAA exemption to play one more season as he has technically used up all of his NCAA eligibility. That might be doable considering Pili missed almost all of the 2021 and 2022 with an ACL and triceps injury, respectively. The Vols are light on linebackers and would love to have Pili, who was tabbed as the starter at middle linebacker in the preseason, back in 2024.

2024 Prediction: NFL

DL Elijah Simmons

It’s hard to predict where Simmons might end up after this season. Simmons has all the physical ability to be a high-level defensive tackle, but things have never completely clicked for him. He’d probably be best suited to return to Tennessee, but the NFL could be the easier choice.

2024 Prediction: NFL

DB Doneiko Slaughter

It seems like it’s just a matter of time until Slaughter becomes at least a solid player and maybe better than that. However, he didn’t emerge as any sort of star this season. Still, the Vols would welcome him back to a secondary that needs all the help it can get. Slaughter has flashed elite cover skills at times, but has lacked consistency during his time as a Vol.

2024 Prediction: Tennessee

DL Omari Thomas

Thomas seems ready to play in the NFL and NIL endorsements seem unlikely to be able to affect his decision. If he’s a mid-round pick then the potential NFL payout will be much larger than anything Tennessee can muster from its boosters.

2024 Prediction: NFL

DB Brandon Turnage

Much like Burrell, Turnage would most likely be welcome back since the Vols need all they can get to improve their defensive backfield. Turnage would be likely be welcome back and would almost certainly not currently have a great NFL evaluation to jump to the professional ranks quite yet.

2024 Prediction: Tennessee

DB Wesley Walker

Tennessee certainly wouldn’t turn down Walker if he decided to return for one more season. Walker was consistent throughout the 2023 season, but seemed to improve later in the year. Also, his NFL prospects seemed limited.

2024 Prediction: Tennessee

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