Sanning: Departing Seniors Should Be Proud of What They Have Accomplished
You can ask Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Nigel Warrior or Daniel Bituli. The past four years haven't always been fun for Tennessee football. In fact, most of the time it hasn't.
If you talk to Dominick Wood-Anderson or Tyler Byrd, they'll likely tell you the same.
Ever since Phillip Fulmer stepped down as head coach in 2008, UT's football program has been stuck in an almost stand-still state. Every time it seemed as if the Vols were on track to becoming relevant again, the rug is yanked from under them.
It happened with Lane Kiffin after his lone season in Knoxville. Seven years later, it happened again under Butch Jones. And let's not even mention the short-lived Derek Dooley era.
Either way you look at it, Tennessee hasn't contended for a division championship, let alone a conference title, in over a decade.
It's shameful for a program that was nationally relevant for 15 years. It's a shame for one of the most storied programs in college football. Teams used to fear coming into Neyland Stadium to play the Vols. Now, they embrace it.
The start of the Jeremy Pruitt era has certainly had its fair share of misfortunes and it appeared to hit rock bottom when the Vols got off to a 1-4 start this season.
Then, slowly but surely, Tennessee started to piece the puzzle together.
It's taken time and patience, but UT has now won four straight games, including five of its last six, and is headed to the postseason for the first time since 2016. This year's senior class has been a key factor in why.
It hasn't just been because Jennings and Callaway are making plays on the outside, either.
Bituli has had a monster senior season, leading the Vols in tackles with 74 on the season. He also has three sacks and a forced fumble. After being maligned for the plays he didn't make last year, Warrior ranks second on the team in tackles and has four interceptions to his name as well.
In fact, the argument could be made that Tennessee's defense has had just as much to do with the team's resurgence as the offense has.
It was the defense that came up with the huge goal line stand against Kentucky just weeks ago. It was the defense that has made life hell on opposing quarterbacks and receivers as of late.
That doesn't mean the offense hasn't done its part, though.
Jennings has picked up where he left off before his injury, hauling in 55 receptions for 886 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. Callaway is right behind him, with 28 catches for 597 yards and six scores.
When healthy, they've been one of the most lethal wide receiver duos in the SEC, if not the country.
Both have the ability to get behind opposing defenses and both are capable of making plays in between the numbers or in short yardage situations. They finally pieced it all together on Saturday in Columbia, with each of them going for over 100 yards.
Last year, the Vols were able to land signature wins over ranked competition but failed to carry over that momentum down the stretch.
This year has been different, and the seniors on the roster have been a big reason why. Their impact goes beyond any statistic or play that could be made on the football field.
The leadership they've provided, the example that they've set and the love they've shown for the Tennessee program are among their top qualities.
Whether or not any of their jerseys get retired one day is irrelevant. Whether or not all of them saw the field consistently is irrelevant, also. These 13 men have done their jobs and the program is in a better place partly because of them.
Jennings may have said it best when addressing the media on Tuesday ahead of his final home game in a Tennessee uniform - there is just something different about the tradition at UT, something that he will miss dearly.
"Just a lot of gratitude to this city and to this program--everything that they’ve done for me everything that they’ve done for my brothers, it means a lot," Jennings said. "The fans, there’s nothing like them anywhere else in this country, so I’m definitely going to miss it.”