It started out as what felt like a bad day for Tennessee Football. The Vols lost a starting cornerback in Doneiko Slaughter, then they saw a four-star tight end commitment Jonathan Echols flip to the South Florida Bulls, and it ended with one of their best pass rushers, Tyler Baron, entering the transfer portal.
However, despite all of that news, they got a boost that was worth all of those losses in Keenan Pili. Across his social media accounts Friday, Pili confirmed that he would be returning for a seventh year to the Vols, implying he received an eligibility waiver from the NCAA.
A transfer at middle linebacker from the BYU Cougars, Pili was emerging as a leader for Tennessee Football in the offseason and had been turning into one of their most important players. He may have been considered their most important defender by their opener against the Virginia Cavaliers.
However, in that game, he suffered a season-ending upper body injury. Because he had already used a redshirt and also was taking advantage of the NCAA’s ruling that the 2020 COVID season wouldn’t count against his eligibility, this past year was his sixth season.
Getting that eligibility waiver allows him to return for one more year. Pili’s value can’t be overstated. There are other linebackers with potential, most notably Arion Carter, but Carter is meant to play outside linebacker. The Vols could not find a replacement for Pili at middle linebacker all year.
Elijah Herring got the bulk of the snaps there, but he was too slow in the flats. Jeremiah Telander was better but not spectacular. Pili, on the other hand, brings everything Jeremy Banks brought to the position and even more in pass coverage while not bringing any locker room issues.
All of a sudden, Tennessee Football has somebody to lead its defense next year. This return is a gigantic boost on the level of any pickup they’ll have. As a result, it made every loss they suffered on Friday worth it. Pili was much more irreplaceable than every other player who left.
Slaughter may be gone, but UT has an array of young defensive backs and many more committed. Baron is elite, but the Vols have James Pearce Jr., Joshua Josephs and four edge rushers committed. Echols wasn’t going to beat out Ethan Davis at tight end anyway, and Josh Heupel isn’t done at that position based on his transfer portal efforts.
There was no replacement for Pili this year, though, and nobody is a confirmed replacement for the future. Tennessee Football is in great position with this move, and assuming he is able to be healthy next year, the Vols should be able to show a lot of improvement on that side of the ball. Only Cooper Mays is a player the Vols need to return more.