Imagine taking every Tennessee Vol who found NFL success in their athletic primes and putting them on one team.
How good would that team be?
Offensively, they’re set. You have quarterback icon/pizza connoisseur Peyton Manning yelling “Omaha!” under center, prepared to either hand it off or throw a perfectly executed screen to Arian Foster. If Manning wants to throw a dime in the second and third levels, there’s more speed than substance at receiver, but at least he has Jason Witten as his patented tight end security blanket.
What about the defense?
The defensive line rotation would be insane: Reggie White, Doug Atkins and Shaun Ellis on the ends, while John Henderson, Malik Jackson and Albert Haynesworth all engulf the interior. And please, let’s remember the 2008 version of Haynesworth and forget about everything else.
If a running back is lucky enough to get past those monsters, linebackers Al Wilson and Jerod Mayo are patiently waiting to lay the wood. In the secondary, good luck throwing on Terry McDaniel, Dale Carter and Eric Berry.
Furthermore, in the battle of field position, Tennessee dominates the field. After all, the University of Tennessee is also known as Punter U.
The point is that Tennessee is one of college football’s historically potent football factories. The Vols don’t get the same buzz that Alabama, LSU or Florida do, but no program in SEC history has had a better 10-year stretch of getting players drafted than Tennessee.
But that stretch from 1994-2003 is far removed from the past decade or so. During the latter stages of Phillip Fulmer era and the entire Kiffin/Dooley saga, Tennessee’s reputation as a football factory took a nosedive. Although it wasn’t immediate, no coach experienced the fallout more than Butch Jones.
Players were drafted after his first two seasons in Knoxville, but the orange and white have laid a goose egg in each of the last two draft classes.
On Thursday, that’ll all change.
The Volunteer football program might not be where some fans expect it to be on the field, but there’s no denying Butch has enhanced the brand by producing a worthwhile stable of NFL talent for the upcoming draft. A total of six players are expected to hear their names called — Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara, Joshua Dobbs, Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Josh Malone — while Corey Vereen is a wild card at this point (his agent did say to me that 7-8 teams are interested in his services and that he “will be good come draft day”).
For Tennessee fans, there’s nothing better than a Saturday at Neyland Stadium, but this upcoming draft weekend is just as significant as any game.
But while the present is taken care of, what exactly does the future hold from a draft perspective for the Vols?
Certainly, Butch has some brick laying to do because the 2018 NFL Draft won’t feature nearly as much buzz for the program. And that’s completely fine — Tennessee isn’t at the point yet as a program where its depth is as high quality as everybody else’s starters. That luxury is only reserved for the likes of Alabama and Ohio State.
However, there is talent. True freshman offensive tackle Trey Smith is a top-5 pick in the making. Safety Nigel Warrior is raw, but his aggressiveness on the field is a thing of beauty to watch. When healthy, Shy Tuttle is a monster in the trenches. While Butch is a fair recipient of criticism aimed at his player development capabilities, this is a man who coached Antonio Brown at Central Michigan.
Ultimately, providing a bridge to the NFL is the most attractive quality about any program. The family atmosphere on campus is a cute story, but people sit on the bench for two years at Alabama because it’ll take them to the NFL, not because they can sing Kumbaya with their friends while they raid Tuscaloosa’s peanut farms.
A program like Alabama has an endless number of ambassadors, and soon, Butch will have six or seven of his guys representing him at the professional level. This is no disrespect to players like Curt Maggitt or Marquez North or the dynastic Colquitt brothers, but Barnett is a projected top-10 pick, while Kamara might play with Aaron Rodgers.
So no, Butch isn’t winning championships at the collegiate level, which is his surface-level job. But underneath the surface, he’s bringing NFL attention to Knoxville, and fulfilling the prophecy to #MakeTennesseeAFootballFactoryAgain.