Dan Fleser: Current Collection Of Vols Stepped Right Through The Fire

Wednesday, November 24, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

The term “Senior Day” still suffices for what will take place at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Several Vols will run through the “T” before their final home football game, which will be against SEC and instate rival Vanderbilt. The players’ individual profiles, though, reflect how much this tradition has been broadened by the prevailing circumstances.

 

It’s a banner day in need of a bigger banner.

 

The pandemic alone has distorted the players’ rhythmic march across time to this celebration.

The usual procession has been four years or, in some cases, five. But defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely exercised an option and elected to return for a sixth season. Matthew Butler, a fellow lineman and senior, arrived here a year after Blakely. Butler referred to his teammate as “the last of the Mohicans”

 

“I never really had the thought about leaving,” Blakely said. “I feel like God sent me here and I felt like I had something that I needed to do. I had work to be done here. That went into my decision to stay but as far as the rewarding part, I do feel that staying helped me gain a lot as a player and as a man after football. So I’m glad I stayed.”           

 

Quarterback Hendon Hooker could take his turn running with this group. I’ll take a wild guess and assume most fans will be hoping he takes a cue from Blakely and doesn’t.

 

UT coach Josh Heupel said on Monday he intended to talk with Hooker after the season about whether to return next season or enter the NFL Draft. Hooker is a fifth-year graduate transfer redshirt senior. What a mouthful. He’s about as grizzled as a grizzled veteran can be in college. Yet he still has another season of eligibility left if he wants it.

 

Caleb Tremblay, on the other hand, will be saying good-bye while some fans still are getting acquainted with the defensive lineman. He followed wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. from Southern Cal. Tremblay, a graduate transfer, played just one season.

 

“This is the first time, I would think, in a while where I’ve really felt my growth as a player and been proud of it,” Tremblay said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of injuries the last two years. This is the first year I’ve felt my growth as an individual.”

 

There will be more players like Tremblay running through here, especially in the short term as Tennessee remains desperate for player depth and experience. Therefore, there’s bound to be future Senior Days like Saturday’s.

 

Heupel can only hope a trend in legacies develops as well. This departing group collaborated on a high standard in a short period of time.

 

“I think all of the uncertainty of last offseason, December and January, to a new coaching staff arriving,” Heupel said, “them buying into it, a lot of them being great leaders inside our program, been instrumental in how we’ve grown. To me, when I think about this group, it’s their ability to face adversity and step right through the fire.”    

 

* * *

 

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at ddanfleser3@gmail.com.


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