One down, two to go.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter's decision to declare for the 2013 NFL draft means Tennessee will lose one of its best offensive players. The other two — quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson —also are likely to go pro early.
If the fans could have any one of the three back for next season, they probably wouldn't take long to make their choice.
Hunter has plenty of pro potential. He's tall, fast and athletic. Bray is 6-foot-6 with a big arm and a quick release, and has a slew of 300-yard passing games behind him.
But Patterson was the biggest star. And he would have stood out on far better teams than the one that just finished a 5-7 season.
You can't help but put his college career in the past tense. Although his departure after one season at UT isn't official, it's inconceivable that a player with his talent would spend another season playing college football when he could earn considerably more than a scholarship in the NFL. He would be worth drafting just as a kick returner.
His college career wasn't much different from his kick returns. It was a flash.
And it's a flash worth remembering.
If Patterson declares for the NFL draft as expected, the volume of his UT highlights will be exceeded only by the regrets from fans who didn't see nearly enough of a player who could turn every kick return, pass reception or end-around into an adventure.
He didn't just provide highlights while living up to his immense junior college hype. He stretched the imagination.
Imagine him playing for Tennessee in 1997. Imagine Peyton to Patterson.
Or imagine Patterson playing for the Vols in 1993 when Heath Shuler was the quarterback. Think he couldn't have made a difference in a three-point loss to Florida or a tie against Alabama?
In fact, imagine what a difference Patterson might have made on any of those UT teams in the early 1990s that were only a player or two short of making a serious run at a national championship.
Instead, Patterson performed his magic in games of little consequence on UT's third consecutive losing team. His timing wasn't much better when it came to NCAA rules.
The NCAA moved up kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard-line for the 2012 season with the intent of producing more touchbacks and fewer injuries.
I don't know about the injuries. But the NCAA was right about fewer returns.
After the first six weeks of the season, there had been as many touchbacks as there were in the entire 2011 season.
No big deal, right? Not unless you had one of the best kick returners in the country.
Patterson returned 24 kicks for a 28-yard average this season. What if he had returned 10 more? Who's to say one of them wouldn't have altered the course of a close loss?
I'm not minimizing his value on a losing team. If nothing else, he provided a wonderful diversion for fans.
Once Patterson received a pass or kickoff, fans could forget about all the losses — or all the yardage opponents accumulated in huge chunks against the worst defense in school history. When Patterson was on the run, fans didn't see beyond the next fake, sudden change of direction or bewildered defender.
They just didn't get to see enough.