Tennessee had five players drafted among the first 77 picks of the NFL draft.
That’s more than Georgia, the two-time defending national champions.
That’s more than LSU, which won the West Division.
Only Alabama from the SEC exceeded Tennessee’s total through three rounds of the draft.
Offensive tackle Darnell Wright was the No. 10 overall pick. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman and defensive end Byron Young went between picks 68 to 77.
But how many of those Vols would have been drafted if Josh Heupel hadn’t been hired to fix a program that was mired in mediocrity and beset by NCAA recruiting violations?
Answer: Maybe none.
You might argue that Wright would have been drafted. Yet, his first two years at Tennessee, he wasn’t very good playing both tackle spots. The former 5-star recruit had the size (6-6, 335) but was considered a bust after two seasons. He lost confidence. And before the 2020 season, he had ballooned to 385 pounds, one source told me.
But under Heupel and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, Wright thrived. He played left tackle as a junior, right tackle as a senior. He didn’t allow a sack in his final 19 college games. He was outstanding in pass protection against Alabama’s Will Anderson and LSU’s B.J. Ojulari. And he was a dominant run blocker.
Would an NFL team have taken a chance on the 2020 version of Wright?
Perhaps. But there’s no guarantee that an unproductive Wright who had lost his confidence would have been selected.
Tillman caught eight passes in three years before Heupel arrived at Tennessee.
Tillman appeared to be a likely candidate for the transfer portal after the 2020 debacle of a season. Instead, the 6-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas rolled the dice on the new staff and hit the jackpot. He caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns in one of the five most efficient seasons for a wide receiver in UT history. He was eighth in catches, fifth in yards, second in touchdown catches.
If Marcus Callaway couldn’t get drafted, Tillman certainly wouldn’t have been if not for Heupel.
Hyatt is from just outside Columbia, S.C., but he wasn’t even recruited by South Carolina. Despite his elite speed, he was deemed too small. Hyatt, who barely weighed 150 his senior season of high school, was benched after four games at UT in 2021 due to dropped passes. He dedicated himself in the offseason to improve his hands and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout.
Hyatt will forever be remembered by UT fans for his six-catch, 207-yard, five-touchdown game as UT beat Alabama for the first time since 2006. You figured if he could torch Nick Saban’s defense, he could have success at the next level. In 2022, Hyatt had 67 catches for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Hooker was a journeyman quarterback who lost his job at Virginia Tech. He transferred to UT under Jeremy Pruitt. Within days, Pruitt was fired and Heupel hired. While Hooker had decent passing stats as a Hokie, he was better known as a runner, churning out 150 rushing yards in a game twice.
At Tennessee he was beaten out by Joe Milton to start the 2021 season. When Milton was hurt in Game 2, Hooker took over and developed into a Heisman Trophy finalist. In 2022, Hooker had 27 touchdowns passes and just two interceptions. In two years at UT, he had 58 TD passes and five picks.
There’s no way he becomes NFL draftable without Heupel and UT’s uptempo offense.
A few years ago, Byron Young was the manager of a Dollar General store. He took a circuitous route to Tennessee and developed into a solid pass rusher, generating 10.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in two seasons at Rocky Top. Without the tutelage of defensive line coach Rodney Garner, Young might be returning to Dollar General rather than the NFL.
It’s debatable that none of UT’s five drafted players would have been selected in the NFL draft if not for Heupel and his staff. I would put the over/under at one.
It is not debatable that playing for Heupel and his staff made them more attractive to NFL teams.
And it’s the primary reason UT had more players taken in the draft than any year since 2017.