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Tennessee proves run worthy once again with Vols selected in NFL Draft

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Tennessee – if it hasn’t already – has some unexpected offerings for college football prospects considering their college choices. The Vols are a football factory.

Well, not quite.

Football factory or not, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel is proving those wrong who questioned his ability to produce top NFL prospects. The Vols had three players selected in the NFL Draft this weekend and things should only get better moving forward. That should be the mantra with all recruits moving forward, whose interest in the NFL is only exceeded occasionally by immediate NIL money. 

Ask former Alabama coach Nick Saban. If you prove to prospects that you can get them ready for the NFL, you’ve won a good part of the battle. The Vols have now produced 13 NFL Draft picks since Heupel took over the Vols following the 2020 season.

The Vols latest run into the NFL should also impress offensive linemen and running backs. It’s far too often that the Vols don’t get more respect for being a running football team. That narrative needs to change immediately. The Vols have produced the top offensive lineman and running back in the SEC over the past two seasons, as judged by the NFL scouts.

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Former Vol running back Jaylen Wright was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the 120th overall pick in the fourth round. He was the highest drafted running back since Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara went No. 67 overall in the third round of the draft in 2017. This comes just one season after former Vol offensive lineman Darnell Wright was selected in the first round and was the top SEC offensive linemen selected.

Tennessee still has some work to do. Top schools, like Michigan and Texas, had 13 and 11 players, respectively selected in the draft. For the record, the Vols’ nemesis, Georgia, had eight players selected.

The Vols’ three drafted players may pale in comparison now, but Tennessee will still have plenty of NFL representation. Per ESPN, Tennessee now has 31 former players in the NFL. That isn’t as much as powerhouse Georgia, which has over 50 players in the NFL, but the talent gap appears to be closing even if that wasn’t entirely evident over the weekend.

It may seem like ancient history to some, but there was a time in which Tennessee produced NFL talent by the bucketloads. The Vols were 12th all time heading into the weekend in NFL Draft picks with 360 selections. For some reference, Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 with 525 draft picks followed by Southern California (523) as the only two schools with more than 500 players in NFL garb.

In today’s world of college football, NIL promises are the best way to secure a prospect. Some care about winning, but most just want to understandably get paid. Heupel has NIL money to spend and now has surely shed the image that he’s a “system” coach with limited player development skills. 

As for the “system” criticism, the Vols aren’t going to hide from the fact that they score a lot of points. As for the player development argument, Heupel produced just seven NFL Draft picks while he was the head coach at Central Florida, which obviously has more limitations in recruiting than a school like Tennessee. It was reasonable for a prospect, parent or coach to ask about his ability to develop players. It’s not anymore.

Tennessee has always had the exposure and facilities needed to produce NFL Draft picks. Now, they’ve proven they have the coaching as well. 

Whenever the Vols are doling out raises, Heupel had best not forget about offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, who helped prepare Darnell Wright for the NFL and had to manage an injury-riddled offensive line without him last season to produce a top tailback. Elarbee, by some, was seen as just a tagalong that came with Heupel when the two left Central Florida following the 2020 season. Now, Elarbee has proven to be the most important coach on Tennessee’s staff. Why? Because of trust.

Despite it’s high-flying ways, the Vols’ offense is steeped in the running game. Heupel can draw up all the fancy offensive passing trees he wants, but the Vols can’t keep defenses honest without a stout running game, which Elarbee has consistently provided. Heupel trusts Elarbee to handle that end of things.

While the Vols have had issues at other positions, offensive line has almost become a known commodity – and it should only get better.

The future has to be exciting for Elarbee. He has an intact offensive line ready for the season with a highly revered transfer offensive lineman, Lance Heard, set for a starting position at left tackle. That future should excite prospects, coaches and family members as well.

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