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It was a nice ending to a successful regular season for the Tennessee football program, as they took care of Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon, 45-21. The Vols were hell-bent on running the football against the Commodores, which turned out to be the one of the main factors that led to their seventh win of the season.
Multiple players made their way through the T for the final time inside Neyland Stadium, as the Vols celebrated Senior Day, and sent this group out with one final home win. Josh Heupel was a bit emotional after the game when discussing this group of Seniors and what they’ve meant to the program, especially after seeing Alontae Taylor and others soak in the moment.
“For Alontae (Taylor) and all of them really, I’m grateful and indebted to them and a lot of ways for their buy-in, being great leaders, and being able to communicate. It’s a group of seniors that is really rare in their ability to communicate. I saw that from the first moment that I got here on campus. What was working, what wasn’t, what was broken, and what was important to them. That laid a lot of the foundation of groundwork as far as how we kind of move forward.”
Tennessee was held scoreless on offense in the first quarter, which was the first time this season that has happened. But, it didn’t take them long to get on the board as Hendon Hooker led his team down the field and Jabari Small finished it off with a six-yard touchdown run. Speaking of Jabari, he finished the day with 103 yards and two touchdowns. The Vols ended up having two 100-yard rushers, as Jaylen Wright ran for 112 yards and one touchdown.
Jabari Small discussed what it meant for this team to be playing in a bowl game and the future of the Tennessee football program.
“With this being the first year of coach Heupel, we haven’t reached the peak or the ceiling of where we could be in the next coming years. I’m very excited to see the whole team buy in to what Coach Heupel is doing. We have some young players, and it’s our first year in the system. The future is bright.”
It was that kind of day for Tennessee, as they were able to catch Vanderbilt through the air as well, thanks to Cedric Tillman. Tillman finished the game with 103 yards and two touchdowns. The Vols receiver is the first player to score a touchdown in six consecutive games since Joey Kent did it in 1995. Josh Heupel was asked what makes Tillman so special.
“I believe his best football is still ahead of him. He’s a guy that from the moment we’ve gotten here he’s just been super consistent in who he is and how he approaches the day, how he works in the weight room.
“Man, he’s got a chance to be an extremely dominant football player next year,” Heupel added. “Guy’s got chance to do some really special things and help this program win.”
Hendon Hooker finished the day 10-18 for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He did not participate in Senior Day activities but will have a decision to make regarding his future, especially if he gets back any type of good news from an NFL evaluation. Another year in this system would do wonders for Hooker, as he would have an opportunity to become one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Josh Heupel spoke about Hooker having to make a decision on returning next season or declaring for the NFL Draft.
“You want the best for them, and I want every one of our players to go to the NFL and have a 10-year career and change the course of their life forever. To do that, you have to be physically, emotionally, and mentally ready to make that stride. It’s not a leap. It’s a developmental league. You want to make sure that your kids are in the right position and in the right frame of mind. He has to jump and ‘chute. Nobody’s happier for him than myself and our staff.”
As for other contributors, Senior Theo Jackson went out on top, as he picked off Mike Wright in the first quarter and returned it for the touchdown. That’s definitely one way to close out your playing career inside Neyland Stadium, as the rest of his teammates held Vanderbilt to 14 points in the second half.
This Tennessee team finished the regular season with seven wins, far exceeding the pre-season expectations for this group. They’ll be remembered for laying the foundation of Josh Heupel’s first year in Knoxville and playing through multiple injury problems on both sides of the football.
“Important for our program that we grew throughout the course of the season. You guys have seen our kids respond and grow throughout the course of the season. They’re great competitors, which is the first thing that you have to have inside of your program. Very consistent in that behavior. The one thing that I and we have never done is as a team put a ceiling on this group and they’ve responded to that too.”
Next up, there’s a good chance the Vols could be bowling in Florida. But, either way, this group is just happy to have found the success they sustained all season long.
Follow along on Twitter: @TreyWallace_