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VOL. 132 | NO. 90 | Friday, May 5, 2017

How Did Vols Not Win More With This Talent?

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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One check of the 2017 NFL Draft shows why Tennessee was the favorite to win the SEC East Division last fall.

UT’s Derek Barnett, the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-round draft pick, talks to the media at the team’s training complex following the draft. Barnett, a defensive end, broke Tennessee’s career sack record, coincidentally held by another Philadelphia Eagle legend, Reggie White, a 2006 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.

(Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

UT had six players drafted in the first four rounds, the most for the program since 2002, breaking a two-year drought with no players. The six Vols drafted tied for the most since 2010 and 2007. Eight Vols were drafted in 2003 and 10 drafted in 2002.

When defensive end Derek Barnett was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round with the 14th overall pick, he became the first Vol taken in the draft since Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton and Daniel McCullers were chosen in 2014.

Other Vols selected were running back Alvin Kamara (New Orleans, third round), defensive back Cam Sutton (Pittsburgh, fourth round), linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Detroit, fourth round), quarterback Joshua Dobbs (Pittsburgh, fourth round) and wide receiver Josh Malone (Cincinnati, fourth round).

Three are from Middle Tennessee. Barnett played at Brentwood Academy in Nashville, Reeves-Maybin at Northeast High in Clarksville and Malone at Station Camp High in Gallatin.

Five more Vols signed free agent deals: Tight end Jason Croom (Buffalo Bills), defensive lineman Corey Vereen (New England Patriots) and defensive back Malik Foreman of Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett (Houston Texans). Offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman and defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis plan to be in the Oakland Raiders rookie camp.

UT coach Butch Jones attended the draft with Barnett in Philadelphia.

“It’s a great weekend for Tennessee football and all of our players,” Jones said. “They have done such a great job of not only representing their personal brand, but the great brand of Tennessee.”

A total of 53 players from the SEC were drafted. Kentucky and South Carolina were the only SEC teams without a player chosen.

Alabama had 10 players drafted, the most of any SEC team, and set an NFL Draft record with nine players taken in the first 79 picks. Florida and LSU were second among SEC teams with eight players drafted each. UT’s six were followed by Texas A&M (five), Auburn and Ole Miss (four each), and Arkansas (three).

Vanderbilt had two players drafted. Linebacker Zach Cunningham was chosen by Houston in the second round, and offensive tackle Will Holden by Arizona in the fifth. Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State each had one.

Tennessee’s big draft weekend reinforced what most of its fans realize: the Vols missed a big opportunity in 2016 with a loaded roster. After a 5-0 start, UT finished 9-4 with a Music City Bowl win and 4-4 in the SEC with losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

For now, UT fans can revel in the draft. Here’s a look at the Vols and where they’re headed in the NFL (in order drafted):

Derek Barnett, Defensive end, Philadelphia Eagles, first round (14th overall), Brentwood Academy, Nashville

Barnett drew roars of applause from the local crowd when his name was called, perhaps a tribute to the late, great Reggie White, whose UT career sacks record Barnett broke last season. Barnett surpassed White’s record by making his 33rd sack in the win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl. White, who played at UT from 1980-83, played his first eight NFL seasons with Philadelphia.

“When you surpass the all-time sack king in Knoxville,” said Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst, referring to Barnett, as a “great pick by the Philadelphia Eagles.”

Barnett is the 12th defensive lineman in UT history to be chosen in the first round and first since Dan Williams in 2010. The last UT player chosen by the Eagles in the first round of the draft was Antone Davis with the eighth overall pick in 1991.

“We couldn’t be more excited about Derek and how he hit the nail on the head,” added Joe Douglas, Eagles vice president of player development. “He is a guy that is tough as nails. When I think about some of the teams I used to grow up watching here in Philadelphia, he’s going to fit in with some of those guys from the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

“He is Philly tough. When you see a guy that shows up in big moments, see a guy that plays in the best conference in all of college football and shows up week in and week out and be as consistent as he is, it’s a big factor.”

Barnett is the first UT defensive lineman drafted since McCullers was picked in the sixth round (No. 215 overall) in 2014. He’s UT’s first defensive player picked in the first round since 2010 when Eric Berry went to Kansas City with the fifth overall pick and Williams went to the Arizona Cardinals with the 26th. The last UT defensive end selected in the first round was Robert Ayers, who went to the Denver Broncos with the 18th overall pick in 2009.

“I’ve heard the fans are very passionate (in Philadelphia) and I know I’m going to an organization with a lot of great players,” Barnett said. “I just can’t wait. I’m ready to get to work, and everybody’s been telling me to enjoy the moment, but I love football and I’m ready to get back to what I love to do.”

Barnett’s 52 career tackles for loss ranks second in UT history behind Leonard Little’s 53.

“You think about (Barnett’s) production in the SEC, unmatched,” Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN analyst, said. “Unbelievable week to week what Derek Barnett was able to do. … He has great hand usage, and he can close, despite having 4.88 speed, doesn’t have the length, the long arms you would want. The savvy he has as a defensive end, the way he works the offensive tackles, he schooled these tackles in college.”

Alvin Kamara, Running back, New Orleans Saints, third round (67th overall), Norcross High, Norcross, Georgia/Alabama/Hutchinson Community College

New Orleans traded up to get Kamara, one of UT’s four team captains and a top playmaker. The Saints gave up a second-round pick in 2018 and its seventh-round pick this year for the 67th overall pick to get Kamara.

Kamara wowed NFL scouts at the combine with the best vertical jump (39.5 inches) and best broad jump (10-11) among the 33 running backs and reportedly had the highest Wonderlic Test score (rating cognitive ability) among running backs with a 24.

“He is a hard-working kid, plays with a lot of energy and passion,” Robert Gillespie, UT running backs coach, said. “He’s going to give everything he has. He is going to be an explosive playmaker, and I think he is a great addition to what you guys (the Saints) do on offense.”

Kamara will have competition for carries. The Saints signed veteran running back Adrian Peterson last week to share duties with Mark Ingram.

“I definitely know a little bit about this (New Orleans) offense, just having the versatility like Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush, and seeing myself like a guy that plays like that,” Kamara said. “I’m excited to see how it unfolds.”

Cam Sutton, Defensive back, Pittsburgh Steelers, third round (94th overall), Jonesboro High, Jonesboro, Georgia

Sutton, a four-year starter at cornerback for UT, overcame a fractured ankle in 2016 and raised his draft stock at the Senior Bowl and NFL combine, where he showed the ability to play cornerback, nickel and safety.

He’s the first UT defensive back to be selected in the NFL Draft since Eric Berry went to the Kansas Chiefs in 2010 with the fifth overall pick.

“He is really fluid and smooth in coverage,” Todd McShay, ESPN analyst, pointed out. “I think everyone was reminded how talented he is when he showed up at the Senior Bowl. He performed as well as any corner there that week. Sutton is a good pick here.”

Pittsburgh defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said Sutton will be a cornerback for the Steelers and playing safety “would be a stretch right now at this point.”

“Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage, but can also play off,” Lake said. “He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.”

Sutton is the 18th UT player chosen by Pittsburgh and the first since McCullers was chosen in the sixth round in 2014 with the 215th overall pick (sixth round).

Sutton said he’s talked to the Steelers about returning punts.

“That’s going to be a big part of it as well,” Sutton said. “Hopefully, I get the opportunity to do that as well.”

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Linebacker, Detroit Lions, fourth round (124th overall), Northeast High, Clarksville 

Reeves-Maybin played only four games in 2016 due to a shoulder injury and was limited at the NFL combine, but after UT’s Pro Day, he was confident he’d be drafted.

He said he talked with the Lions in the pre-draft process.

“I had some contact with them through the process,” he explained. “It wasn’t like anything, a straight number of visits or nothing. I never came up there. I definitely thought they were interested in me, and I was very fortunate.”

In addition to playing linebacker, Reeves-Maybin was a special teams standout during his UT career, and that should help him in the NFL.

“He’s going to make his way on special teams first,” said Charles Davis, NFL Network. “He asks to play on special teams. (Tennessee) wanted to take him off of a few, he insisted on playing them (special teams). In fact, (he) would give the presentation every year to guys about how important is was to play special teams. So I think he makes it that way first, builds his body up, then you can use him as a nickel, sub-linebacker and have him run all over the field.”

Josh Malone, Wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals, fourth round (128th overall), Station Camp High, Gallatin

Malone has the size (6-3, 210 pounds) and speed (4.40) to be a steal for the Bengals with the 128th pick. After a breakout junior season (50 catches, 972 yards, 11 TDs), Malone opted for the NFL Draft and impressed at the NFL combine and UT’s Pro Day. His 40 time at the combine was the third-best among receivers.

“He has 31 starts in three years, coming off by far his most productive season,” McShay said. “His size and speed is a combination that’s really intriguing. He’s a player that can stretch the field vertically. He needs to get stronger on contested throws, but he is also excellent after the catch.”

Malone is the first UT receiver to be selected in the draft since 2013 when Cordarrelle Patterson was chosen in the first round (29th overall) by the Minnesota Vikings and Justin Hunter went to the Tennessee Titans in the second round (34th overall).

Malone was third in the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns last year. He’s the fourth UT receiver to be picked by the Bengals, joining Tim McGee (first round, 21st overall in 1986), Carl Pickens (second round, 31st overall in 1992), and Kelley Washington (third round, 65th overall in 2003).

The soft-spoken Malone is the first graduate in Station Camp High’s 15-year existence to be chosen in the NFL Draft.

“I feel like I’m a big target, and I also feel like I’m a balanced wide receiver,” Malone pointed out. “I pride myself on just being technically sound and just getting open. So, hopefully, I can be a guy for them on third down, or if they need a big guy in the red zone to go get it, I can be another one of those guys for them.”

Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers, fourth round (135th overall), Alpharetta High, Alpharetta, Georgia

Aside from Barnett going with the 14th overall pick, Dobbs’ selection by the Steelers created the most buzz for Tennessee fans.

Comparisons immediately began between Dobbs and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, chosen with the 135th pick in last year’s draft. Prescott took over as the Cowboys starter due to Tony Romo’s preseason injury and never relinquished the job.

Could Dobbs be the successor for Steelers starter Ben Roethlisberger?

“I am not trying to replace anyone,” Dobbs replied to that question. “I am just trying to be the best I can be each and every day. Show up and work. Learn as much as I can from a future Hall of Famer (Roethlisberger). 

“It’s definitely an amazing opportunity. Each day I am working and preparing like I am a starter, but also treating it as a learning opportunity so that whenever my number is called, I am ready to go, ready to play and ready to play at a high level.”

Dobbs is the first UT quarterback drafted since 2010 when the San Diego Chargers selected Jonathan Crompton in the fifth round with the 168th overall pick. Dobbs is the highest-drafted UT quarterback since 1998 when Peyton Manning was chosen by the Indianapolis Colts with the No. 1 overall pick.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert attended Tennessee’s Pro Day, met with Dobbs’ parents, and flew Dobbs to Pittsburgh for a meeting three days later. Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner met with Dobbs when he was in Pittsburgh.

“I probably had generally an hour or an hour and a half that might have bled over to two (hours) in between all of the interviews and everything (Dobbs) has to do while he’s in this building for that short period of time,” Fichtner explained. “And it’s one of those things that happens really fast, and it goes by so quick that you’re like, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ And then he’s leaving, because you enjoy (the visit) that much. When you’re around folks like that, it’s fun. … He’s got that dynamic.”

Dobbs was 23-12 as UT’s starting quarterback and his 9,360 total yards of offense rank third in UT history.

“He’s a smart guy,” Tomlin said of Dobbs. “He is driven in all of the right ways. He is properly motivated. He has got natural leadership skills. A lot has been written about his academic prowess, but I think he carries that same mentality in how he approaches football. We just see that there is a lot of upside in this young man.

“He has been in competitive circumstances before. He has prevailed. He has come out the other side. We are just really excited not only about what he has done, but we believe that there is a strong upside there. We are talking about a young guy who is really excited to get coached from day to day from a positional standpoint and be exposed to our professional football offense.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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