To'o To'o and Gray are leaving, too? Whatever your expectations are for 2021 Tennessee, lower them
You know the famous scene in “Rudy” when all of those Notre Dame players line up outside of Dan Devine’s office so that they can offer up their jerseys in hopes of getting the gritty walk-on a chance to play in a game before his eligibility runs out?
In a weird way, that’s what it felt like with Tennessee on Wednesday night. As if they were lined up outside Kevin Steele’s door, stud player after stud player (metaphorically) turned in their jersey.
Henry To’o To’o’s No. 11 jersey hit the desk. Jahmir Johnson’s No. 58 soon followed. Then it was time for Quavaris Crouch’s No. 27, and before he could close the (metaphorical) door behind him, Eric Gray’s No. 3 dropped, too.
The difference between Tennessee’s situation and Notre Dame’s was that unlike in the movie wherein those players started an inspiring movement in an effort to get 1 person on the field for 1 game, those key Vols turned their jerseys in for good. Tennessee isn’t some feel-good moment that’s about to lead to some walk-on getting carried off the field for one of the most prestigious programs in college football.
But like with those Notre Dame players in “Rudy,” the byproduct of Tennessee’s best players turning in their jerseys could be that walk-ons are suddenly thrown into the fire.
With the way things are trending in Knoxville now in the wake of an internal investigation into recruiting violations and Jeremy Pruitt’s subsequent firing, it’s becoming more obvious with each orange and white jersey that hits the desk.
Whatever your 2021 expectations of Tennessee are, lower them. And then maybe lower them some more.
If you thought 2020 was bad, wait until you see what the SEC does to the Vols in the aftermath of this 2021 dumpster fire. I’ll save you the rant on why this isn’t the type of league that forgives depleted rosters like the one that resides in Knoxville.
Ask post-Hugh Freeze Ole Miss about that. Level I violations meant that players could enter the transfer portal and receive immediate eligibility. It’s a minor miracle that the likes of D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown stayed in Oxford. Still, that team went 6-18 vs. SEC competition in a 3-year stretch under Matt Luke.
Scholarship limitations matter. Being on probation while recruiting also matters. Losing all of your best players matters more than anything.
Tennessee is about to experience all 3 of those things. If Wednesday night was the scene in “Rudy” wherein we only see a handful of key players turn in their jerseys, the last couple of months was when the line out the office door started.
Quarterbacks J.T. Shrout, Brian Maurer and Jarrett Guarantano hit the transfer portal, as did leading pass rusher Deandre Johnson and multi-year starting tailback Ty Chandler, who were among the 8 Tennessee players who transferred between December and Jan. 7, which was roughly a week and a half before Pruitt’s firing was announced. Former 5-star offensive lineman and multi-year starter Wanya Morris also entered the transfer portal the week before Pruitt’s firing.
The top recruit in Tennessee’s recently inked 2021 class, Dylan Brooks, asked for his release from the program on Wednesday. Since the last week of November, the Vols had 4 recruits rated 4-stars or better in the 2021 class drop their commitments (and 9 total recruits). That included 5-star linebacker Terrence Lewis, who signed with Maryland.
If you thought that was bad, look at Tennessee’s 2022 class. As of this writing on Thursday morning, it doesn’t exist. To be fair, it was only 1 player deep when the week started. That was 3-star New York linebacker Jimmy Scott … who also dropped his commitment Wednesday. He didn’t even have a jersey to drop on Steele’s desk.
Neither did Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant, who committed to Tennessee over the weekend and then deleted his social media post announcing the move Tuesday.
Even the most optimistic Tennessee fan — the one who still thinks a 1998 return is within arm’s reach — has to realize how brutal this is. We haven’t even gotten to the part where Tennessee gets either a self-imposed punishment or an NCAA punishment. Both feel inevitable.
This is the part in the movie where we hear the Tennessee faithful say “those who stay will be champions.” I’d say a “champions of life” trophy is more realistic for Tennessee. Even that might be setting the bar too high.
Those who stay are likely to be an SEC punching bag until further notice.
Then again, we’re talking about a program with 2 winning conference seasons in the last 13 years that posted a 5-37 record against its 3 biggest rivals in the last 14 seasons. That punching bag aspect won’t take much adjusting on Rocky Top. What will take adjusting is not having that hope that help is on the way. No top-10 recruiting class is walking through that door. Unlike the previous decade-plus when a coach flamed out at Tennessee, there likely won’t even be that immediate jolt of excitement for the successor.
Unlike 2017 when Tennessee posted a winless season in SEC play in the final year of the Butch Jones era, there won’t even be a head coach to put all the blame on. In the likely event it is Steele who coaches through the train wreck that awaits in 2021, he won’t be at fault for the losses. You can’t really expect much from the guy when all of his key contributors keep filing into his office with a jersey to put on his desk.
Shortly before Pruitt’s firing, Austin Price and Brent Hubbs of Rivals’ Volquest reported that the then-Tennessee head coach was accompanied by Steele and multiple Tennessee staffers in a trip to California to meet with To’o To’o in hopes of keeping him from leaving the program. As we found out Wednesday night, that effort came up short.
Get ready to hear that a lot with Tennessee in 2021. “That effort came up short.” There’s no doubt that those who stay will try to keep a sinking ship afloat. They deserve praise for that, no doubt.
But this isn’t the movies. This is the SEC.
There’s no “Rudy” ending coming to Knoxville.