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Heupel, Golesh talk impact of outgoing senior class

A group that will be remembered forever.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to believe, but Tennessee will play their final home game of the season on Saturday against Missouri. It’s Senior Day, and this class certainly has done their part to restore this program to its rightful spot on the national stage.

For the final time for most — the COVID season rule could allow a couple to return — this class will run through the T and play in front of a sold out crowd at Neyland Stadium.

“Man, the seniors here right now are leading in such an incredible way,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “We just got done with a Tuesday practice after our first loss and it’s constant energy, constant positivity. I think they’ve fed off of Coach Heupel in that regard, but guys like Hendon Hooker, Jerome Carvin, Ced – those guys are the reason this program, at least for us offensively, has been able to flip.”

Hooker, Carvin, Tillman, along with guys like Trevon Flowers, Jaylen McCollough, Byron Young, Aaron Beasley, Solon Page, Ramel Keyton, Darnell Wright, Juwan Mitchell, Jeremy Banks, Jacob Warren and LaTrell Bumphus have laid a foundation in Knoxville. After over a decade of Tennessee just trying to find some footing in the SEC, this group has done it, and they may all be rewarded with a trip to the College Football Playoff next month.

“They’ve fed off of Coach Heup’s message,” Golesh continued. “They’ve fed off of our message. They’ve demanded greatness, through the offseason demanded greatness through practice. I think they continue to demand that our process every single day is right, but those guys have been incredible. They’ve just remained positive and remained the same way throughout the process, I think very much led by Hendon and what his approach has been. I can’t give those guys enough credit.”

Hooker, now 24 years old, has finished out his lengthy college career in style. After struggling through his time at Virginia Tech, Hooker landed in a completely unknown situation with a coach that he did not commit to. It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to his football career, as he finds himself in the thick of the Heisman race down the stretch. Hooker’s success has also allowed Cedric Tillman to transform into a legitimate NFL prospect.

It’s easy to forget where this senior group came from. Just two years ago, they were limping to the finish line of a 3-7 season, where Jeremy Pruitt would eventually be fired for recruiting violations. A mass exodus followed, but this group stayed put. Frankly, nobody would have blamed them for going — things looked and felt bleak.

But they didn’t.

Everyone kind of chuckled when the newly hired Danny White proclaimed that he was going to hire someone that could “win fast.” Nothing suggested that was possible. However, Josh Heupel and his staff quickly adopted this core — along with Alontae Taylor, Matthew Butler, Velus Jones Jr. and others last season — and immediately found results.

“You just look at all the obstacles, the hurdles that this group has gone through, it tells you about their resiliency, their ability to grow and focus, to take correction,” Josh Heupel said.

“Just the DNA of who each of them are and how they’ve responded to anything that’s been thrown at them in however long it’s been now — 20 months or whatever — that I’ve been here, and the ability to see them grow. There’s so much that is inside of our building because of who these guys are. It’s a class that I’ll remember forever, but a group of guys that accepted me, accepted our staff and allowed us to get off and running really quickly.”

Some may return, but most will move on following this season. It’ll be an emotional day as the clock strikes zero in Neyland Stadium on Saturday, but this group still has plenty to accomplish over the next 60 days.

However it plays out, Tennessee fans certainly are grateful to this senior class.