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Game Balls: Tennessee-Vanderbilt

The Volunteer Country staff gifts three Vols game balls for their performance in Tennessee's 45-21 win over Vanderbilt.

On Saturday evening, the Tennessee Vols concluded the regular season against Vanderbilt in Neyland Stadium on Senior Night.

While the 24-point win was not as much as some expected, the Vols got the job done and finished 7-5 on the season to give Josh Heupel the best record a Tennessee Vols first-year head coach has had since Lane Kiffin in 2009. The win also improves Tennessee's bowl positioning as they became eligible against South Alabama last week.

Below are the three Vols that were instrumental in the Vols final regular-season win.

Offense: Jabari Small

Small continued his impressive play from the South Alabama game with another big night against Vanderbilt.

Small's performance against Vandy marks the first game Small has eclipsed the century mark since the season opener against Bowling Green. The sophomore scampered for 103 yards on 15 carries and two scores, making it back-to-back weeks Small has scored multiple touchdowns. The last time a Volunteer rusher accomplished that feat was Alvin Kamara in 2016 when he rushed for two touchdowns against Mizzou and Vandy in back-to-back weeks in November.

Small is displaying how well he can handle the lion's share of the carries in Josh Heupel's offense with Tiyon Evans unavailable, as the Memphis native had a 6.9 yards per carry mark against the Commodores. Small finishes the regular season with 114 carries for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. Small becomes the Vols 2021 leading rusher in yards and touchdowns and is the leader in attempts among running backs.

Small has looked the part the last two weeks. The early and middle parts of the season saw the sophomore plagued with injuries, and he did not look as efficient as he does now. With Evans gone, Small's play is showing he can pick up right where Evans left off as Tennessee's lead back, especially with Jaylen Wright taking some of the load off.

Honorable Mentions:

Freshman Running Back Jaylen Wright: 15 attempts, 112 yards, one touchdown.

Junior Wide Receiver Cedric Tillman: 6 catches, 106 yards, 2 TDs. Tillman became the first Vol wideout to have six straight games with a score since Joey Kent in 1995.

Defense: Theo Jackson

One of the best players the Vols have had this season is Theo Jackson. Jackson has had a career year as a fifth-year senior, and the VFL took part in his final game as a Vol in Neyland Stadium against Vanderbilt.

And it may have been one of Jackson's best in the orange and white.

The Nashville native got the Vols on the board early with a pick-six on Vanderbilt's first drive to start the game. Jackson made a perfect read on a pass from Mike Wright on 2nd-and-2 and took it to the house.

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The pick-six marked Jackson's first of his career, and it was the first pick for Jackson this season and the second of his long career at UT.

Jackson finished with four total tackles, 0.5 TFLs, a pass breakup and a quarterback hit along with the pick-six.

Jackson's touchdown was the third pick-six for the Vols this season.

No. 26 finished his final regular season as Vol on a high, high note, and without his touchdown against Vanderbilt, the game would have made Vol Nation sweat a little bit early on due to the slow offensive start.

Jackson finishes the regular season with 185 tackles, nine pass deflections, one-and-a-half sacks and the lone interception and touchdown.

Jackson noted earlier in the week that the matchup against Vanderbilt was special to him, as he is from Nashville and it means a lot to beat his hometown school. Watch Jackson talk about how significant beating Vanderbilt is here.

Special Teams: Chase McGrath/Paxton Brooks/Velus Jones Jr. (Trio of Seniors)

It was a slow night for Mike Ekeler's unit against Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt only allowed Velus Jones Jr. to return one punt and zero kickoffs. Jones Jr. made the most out of his one return, as he took it into Commodore territory on a 50-yard return, but the Vols could not capitalize with points on the ensuing drive.

UT called up Paxton Brooks for only one punt, but he, too, made the most out of his lone appearance. Brooks pinned the 'Dores inside the five-yard line with a 46-yard punt in the early stages of the second quarter. Vanderbilt would go on to punt at their 17-yard line on that drive. The Vols then capitalized on good field position and scored their first offensive touchdown on the next drive, all of which are partially attributed to Brooks' great punt.

Redshirt senior placekicker Chase McGrath knocked all of his kicks through the uprights on Saturday night, which included five extra points and a 31-yard field goal in the late stages of the first half.

With the limited action the special teams unit saw against the Commodores, it is fitting to reward the trio of seniors with a shared Special Teams game ball after the win.Did you know Volunteer Country on SI does Podcasts? Check out the staff's latest breakdowns here.

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