By Jimmy Hyams
As I watched Tennessee beat Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky, I was reminded of a preseason narrative: Jeremy Pruitt inherited a bare cupboard.
As Lee Corso would say: Not so fast, my friends.
Tennessee doesn’t have a depth of talent, but it has better personnel than at least half of the teams in the SEC.
The Vols are more talented than the three SEC teams it has already defeated. It has better talent than Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt. Missouri and Texas A&M are close calls.
Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and LSU are the only SEC teams that clearly have superior players.
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll trust a couple of NFL agents that told me at least six Vols could be taken in the upcoming NFL draft.
Considering UT didn’t have a player selected in three of the last five drafts, that’s a huge upgrade.
The experts I communicated with think junior offensive lineman Trey Smith, if he comes out early and is cleared medically, could be taken in the first three rounds.
Outside linebacker Darrell Taylor, who leads the SEC with seven sacks, could be a second or third rounder but with a “good pre-draft process,’’ could go late first round.
Marquez Callaway, who leads the SEC in yards per catch, could go in the middle to late rounds.
“The NFL likes him and believes he will be a better pro,’’ one agent said. “What he runs will be important but his return ability really helps.’’
Callaway is averaging 20.1 yards per punt return, which would rank second in the SEC if he had enough runbacks to qualify. He was supposedly timed in the 4.3s in the 4-yard dash during a UT workout.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli, who had 19 tackles against Kentucky, likely will be a Day 3 pick (rounds four to seven).
Jauan Jennings, who leads the team in receiving and who has become a vocal leader of the team, has played his way into being draftable. But his Instagram tirade two years ago that led to his dismissal (he was later reinstated) could crop up.
“His character concerns will need to be cleared up,’’ an NFL agent said. “Speed is also an issue.’’
Jennings is not as fast as Callaway, but his yards after catch and ability to break tackles is impressive.
Safety Nigel Warrior, who has played at a high level six games in a row and leads the team with four interceptions, and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson could be Day 3 draft picks.
Also, the Senior Bowl had nine Vols on its preseason watch list. One was defensive back Baylen Buchanan, who hasn’t played this season due to narrowing of the spine, and long snapper Riley Lovingood.
If seven of your players get drafted in one class, that doesn’t suggest you lack talent, at least, not among your starters.
You also have five or six true freshmen that have all-SEC potential, like offensive linemen Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, and defensive backs Warren Burrell and Jaylen McCullough.
Matt Stinchcomb, a former star offensive lineman at Georgia, has called some Tennessee games as an analyst with the SEC Network.
We asked him what he thinks of UT’s personnel.
“There isn’t a ton of depth at Tennessee right now,’’ Stinchcomb said, “but at the same time, the frontline players in certain areas, I think, are pretty darn good.’’
He added: “Overall there are definitely some deficiencies. They don’t have great depth along the defensive front, the offensive front.’’
Stinchcomb said UT has some young talent with a “high ceiling, but it isn’t fully realized.’’
As for the team, he mentioned Smith, Bituli, Taylor, To’o To’o, Jennings and Callaway.
“So, there’s talent there, no doubt,’’ he said. “They just need to accumulate more of it.’’