On Saturday, Tennessee hosts the Missouri Tigers in its last home game of the season. For the Vols, it’s a chance to celebrate their talented senior class and all that they’ve done for the program. A couple of this year’s stars are among those that will be celebrated this weekend, but even their superb play this season doesn’t truly reflect everything that they’ve accomplished with the program.
Along with head coach Butch Jones, this year’s senior class revived a once-great program that had fallen on hard times and return them to national relevance.
Let’s go back to 2012 to see just how bad things were.
There was a certain level of optimism before the season began. The Vols were just outside of the Top 25 in the AP’s preseason poll, and highly-regarded junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had chosen to join forces with Justin Hunter at Tennessee to form a great receiving duo for talented junior quarterback Tyler Bray to throw to. After a pair of victories to open the season, the team even broke into the rankings at No. 23.
That optimism faded quickly. A lopsided loss to Florida knocked the Vols out of the rankings, and that loss was just the first of seven straight SEC defeats to open the season. After a blowout loss to Vanderbilt dropped Tennessee to 4-7 (0-7 SEC), the program decided to fire head coach Derek Dooley. On Nov. 24, interim head coach Jim Chaney helped the Vols beat Kentucky to end the season and ensure the team wouldn’t go winless in SEC play for the first time ever. Despite that, it was the third straight losing season in Knoxville, a streak the team hadn’t seen since 1909-11.
That offseason, Jones was hired to lead the program out of the disastrous state it was in. He was joined by some talented players — current captains Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Joshua Dobbs, as well as contributors Dylan Wiesman, Corey Vereen, and Malik Foreman were all true freshman that saw some time that year.
Sutton became a starting cornerback immediately, going on to be named to the All-SEC Freshmen team. Reeves-Maybin was a backup defender that mostly played special teams but also saw some action at both linebacker and defensive back. Dobbs was planning on using the year to redshirt and develop, but he was forced into action against Alabama due to injuries and ineffective quarterback play. He would start the rest of the season. Though the former two have had their senior seasons affected by injury, each of the three players have established themselves as one of the conference’s best at their position.
Though the other seniors aren’t as highly touted as those three, a handful of them have been very important to this year’s team. Wiesman began his career as a special teams player and versatile backup for the offensive line. After recovering from an offseason injury, Vereen became a rotation defensive lineman. Foreman was a backup cornerback as a freshman, appearing in nine games and making 10 tackles. All three are starters this year, and each has performed well.
There are some other players being honored this weekend, too. Defensive linemen Charles Folger and LaTroy Lewis, tight end Jason Croom and linebacker Kenny Bynum were all members of the 2012 team under Dooley. The latter three will likely all see some time as backups in their last career home game.
With the exception of Folger, every senior on the roster has made valuable on-field contributions to the program. Dobbs will finish his career with the fifth-most passing yards in school history and as the most prolific running quarterback to ever play on Rocky Top. Sutton and Reeves-Maybin will likely play in the NFL, and even if they didn’t, they would be remembered as the stars they were during their time in college. The senior class is talented, but their biggest contribution hasn’t been strictly limited to their on-the-field play.
It can’t be quantified the same way their individual statistics can, but the most important thing the senior class did for the program was to bring it back from the brink of irrelevance. In 2012, before they joined the team, Tennessee was in an unprecedented multi-year stretch of being a bad football team. In 2016, the Vols aren’t back to the level they once played at, but they are better than they’ve been in a very long time.
Tennessee fans hope that the Dooley era will soon just be a distant memory — a brief stretch of bad play that’s hidden in the storied history of one of the nation’s greatest college programs. If that happens, and the Vols again become a powerhouse again, the players honored on Saturday afternoon should be remembered as the group that ushered in the new era.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Sumner Gilliam