Tennessee’s (7-5, 4-4 SEC) 45-21 trounce over Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8 SEC) marked the end of a successful first season for Josh Heupel in his first year at the helm of the Tennessee football program.
However, Saturday meant more than just reaching seven wins, as it was also Senior Day for 16 players. Some of these departures only spent one season as a Volunteer, while others waded through three different coaches during six years on Rocky Top. No matter the tenure, these players will be remembered for their contributions to this fast-rising football team.
Theo Jackson #26
Jackson has been an integral piece of the Volunteer secondary this season. He played the STAR position all season in Tim Banks’ defense where he put up career-highs of 36 solo tackles, 73 total tackles, nine tackles for loss and 12 passes defended. He appeared in double-digit games in each of his five seasons at Tennessee, including 11 games played this year. His consistent play all season has been a key reason this defense has exceeded expectations.
It would be hard for Jackson to draw up a better start to his Senior Day. He jumped a route on the first drive of the game and returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown. On top of scoring his first career touchdown, he said the moment was made even more special by doing it in front of his family.
“Once I cleared everybody, I was looking straight at (my family),” said Jackson. “That was the best feeling I could ever have, scoring a touchdown right there in front of my fam.”
Jackson also recorded four tackles, half of a tackle for loss, a pass break up and two quarterback hurries in his last game in Neyland Stadium.
Velus Jones Jr. #1
Jones Jr. took an untraditional route to Tennessee. He played four seasons at USC before entering the transfer portal and joining the Volunteers for two more. Once arriving on Rocky Top, the wide receiver instantly became a fan favorite for his lightning-fast speed and ability to be a dynamic ball carrier. He had a good season in his first year at Tennessee, but improved mightily this year, doubling almost all of his statistics. He ended his final collegiate regular-season with 52 receptions for 722 yards and six touchdowns. He has also been one of the better returners in college football, averaging 28.1 yards per return on kick-offs while finding the end zone once. He is also the Power-5 leader with 16 yards-per-return on punts.
Against Vanderbilt, Tennessee threw the ball just 10 times, but Jones Jr. was able to reel in two catches for 22 yards and a first down. He did most of his damage on the day on his only chance at a return. In the first quarter, he returned a punt 50 yards down to the Vanderbilt 21-yard line. Similar to his kick return for a touchdown the week prior, Jones Jr. utilized his speed and elusiveness to create a big play.
JaVonta Payton #3
Payton did not find his way to Tennessee until this season. The wide receiver began his college career at Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he played his way into becoming the top-ranked JUCO receiver in his class, according to ESPN. He committed to Mississippi State, where he played his junior and senior seasons. With one year of eligibility remaining, he transferred to Tennessee. He played in all 12 games, scoring six touchdowns and totaling 378 receiving yards. He also averages 23.6 yards per catch.
Due to the low volume of passes Tennessee threw, Payton only caught one ball against Vanderbilt. On the Vols’ first offensive play of the game, he caught a play-action screen pass and took it five yards down the field. This sort of play may sound familiar to Vol fans, as it was the same concept Tennessee opened up the game against Kentucky with. On that play, Payton snuck by defenders for a 75-yard touchdown. This was a catalyst for Tennessee’s big 45-42 win over the Wildcats.
Alontae Taylor #2
Taylor spent all four of his seasons with Tennessee where he developed into a lockdown cornerback. He is in the midst of his best season on Rocky Top totaling 60 tackles, two interceptions, one pick-six, eight passes defended and a forced fumble. This on-the-field play mixed with him being a vocal voice in the locker room led to him becoming a clear leader for the team. He was selected to the SEC Football Leadership Council in 2020 and represented Tennessee at the 2021 SEC Media Day.
He finished his career as a Vol with a solid performance of six total tackles, five solo tackles and a pass breakup, and he almost added a third interception on the pass breakup. On the play, Tyler Baron got pressure on the quarterback and forced an overthrow. The pass sailed over the head of the Commodore receiver, who was able to get a fingertip on the ball disrupting Taylor’s attempt to pick it off.
— Alontae Taylor (@taeetaylor) November 28, 2021
Trevon Flowers #1
Flowers fought through injuries in his first two years at Tennessee but has since been a consistent defensive back. Now in his fourth season, he has appeared in 11 games and statistically improved on his junior year. His totals of 46 solo tackles and 79 total tackles are both career highs. He also has an interception and three passes defended.
On Saturday, his eight tackles were the third most on the team. Five of those tackles were also solo efforts. Flowers has a knack for bringing down ball carriers and was able to stop big plays before they happened against Vanderbilt. He has been a valuable asset to Tennessee’s defense and a good model for the young defensive backs, who will need to step up next year after the departure of key secondary pieces.
Matthew Butler #94
Butler is a fifth-year senior who has been one of the Volunteers’ most consistent defensive linemen the past three seasons. Since 2019, he has produced over 40 tackles in each season. This season, he has improved as a pass rusher, recording 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He has also forced a fumble. Considering Tennessee’s thin defensive line, he played a massive role in keeping the defense afloat.
He had a quiet day against Vanderbilt, but it can mostly be attributed to low usage. The Vols played eight different defensive linemen in the game as their lead was secured. In his playtime, he put up two tackles and a quarterback hurry. The impact he makes while in games cannot be understated, though. Even when he does not get pressure on the quarterback, he is a force that needs to be respected, leaving openings for other players to make plays.
Ja’Quain Blakely #48
In his sixth and final year, Blakely has had by far his best season. In his first five years, he totaled a combined 15 tackles. This season, he produced 28. He also has 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and three passes defended. He stepped up when needed in a huge way on the defensive line. He is another player who weathered two coaching searches but has stuck it out at Tennessee. Blakely did not see as much action as normal, only getting involved in three tackles against Vanderbilt.
Cade Mays #68
Due to injury, Mays was not able to play in the game against Vanderbilt. However, the senior lineman has had a phenomenal season for the Vols. He spent his first two collegiate seasons at Georgia, but transferred for his final two to play with his brother, Cooper Mays. Once arriving on Rocky Top, he quickly became one of the best linemen in the SEC. This has been proven by his two-time SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week awards in 2021. He will likely be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft where he is considered a player with high potential.
Other seniors that were honored during Senior Day ceremonies were K’Rojhn Calbert, Caleb Tremblay, Aubrey Solomon, Kenneth George Jr., Grant Frerking, J.T. Siekerman, Donovan Slates and Tanner Dobrucky.
“I want to thank our seniors,” said coach Josh Heupel. “Just from the time that I’ve gotten here, all the uncertainty when I first got introduced up on this podium. What they faced for two months probably leading up to that moment. How they’ve responded, stepped through the fire, who they are as people and leaders inside of our program. They’ve helped lay a rock-solid foundation for this program as we go forward. I appreciate everything they’ve done.”
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at email@example.com