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Tennessee proves that it’s not NFL or bust for a former Vol

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You might have missed it, but a former Tennessee Vol achieved a lifelong goal over the weekend. No, there wasn’t an NFL Draft. There was a graduation ceremony.

Former Tennessee star defensive end Derek Barnett graduated this weekend despite having a successful career in the NFL on his resume. That says a lot about Barnett, Tennessee and potential changes that could be made in recruiting. 

Being able to return to college to get a degree after one’s playing days is a pretty good recruiting tool. It speaks to players’ loyalty that Barnett would want to return to Tennessee. After all, things didn’t go swimmingly when he was a Vol. Still, he made sure to get that degree.

Barnett, who played three seasons for the Vols from 2014 to 2016, didn’t really need to return to school if you want to be pragmatic about it. He made about $29-million from the NFL during his career. That makes one question the importance of a college degree with a fat bank account in tow. In fact, for the best of all involved, all players should be encouraged to – wait, for it – not go to school while they’re playing football. Why? I’ll explain.

Tennessee is one of many Power Five schools that will allow student-athletes to return to college after an NFL attempt, so why waste time on campus going to Philosophy 101 when there’s an NFL fortune on the line? Is the education important? Sure, but it’s not pressing just yet. So why should all parties involved pretend a college degree must be completed immediately after high school?

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A player’s body ages sooner than their brain so it seems to be that it would be apt to focus on a primary goal, athletics, until that goal has been extinguished, even though an NFL future maybe a long shot statistically.

Prospects usually want to hear about how they’ll easily make the NFL in recruiting, not major in economics. However, parents still want to hear more about the entire package. Tennessee’s stance on allowing players to return to college should be a major piece of its recruiting arsenal and I’m sure that it is. Simply put, college can wait. Tennessee could be ahead of the recruiting curve by having a wait-and-see policy on school with the caveat that any player can still return after an NFL shot. In the immediacy, just focus on football.

As for Barnett, how’s that for loyalty and love for a place that, despite its problems at the time, prepared one of many players to achieve that financial independence? Barnett didn’t have to come back to Tennessee to get his degree. That might not speak to high schoolers looking for that first NIL check, but it should speak to their parents. A degree still means something. 

Prospects might be not be listening, but their parents are surely attune to the package deal when a school comes calling. Football is a big part of that, especially with academic insurance at the ready.

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