Seniors will play their final game for Tennessee on Saturday. But fans might be thinking more about the juniors, three in particular.
Quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson all might apply for the next NFL draft. In fact, I would be surprised if they didn't go pro early.
Maybe a new coach could sell them on the idea that another year of seasoning and bodybuilding would benefit them all. Former UT quarterback Peyton Manning could vouch for that. Look how much bigger and stronger he became from one season to the next in four years at UT.
Bray looks sturdier than when he arrived, but he's still terrifyingly thin for the hits he will be asked to absorb in the pros. So is Hunter, who already has suffered one season-ending knee injury. And as overmatched as Patterson can make college defenders look, another year in the college weight room might serve him well for the kind of punishment NFL safeties can dole out.
How do you convince guys to turn down money, though?
It's not as though they would be returning to make a run at a national championship. Also, Bray and Hunter already have been through one coaching change. Would they want to endure another one?
But I wonder more about what the fans' reaction would be to their departures?
Never mind how much the trio has contributed to UT's offense this season. Their departures won't be mourned en masse.
If fans could keep one, Patterson surely would be the runaway choice. He's the most exciting Tennessee player since Condredge Holloway, whether he's running from scrimmage, catching passes or returning kickoffs.
Like Patterson, Hunter is tall and fast. And in preseason, he was rated as one of the top NFL prospects at his position.
But Hunter has played this season as though he doesn't want to get hurt, which is hardly surprising after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game. His play is reminiscent of running back Jamal Lewis' last season at UT.
Coming off a knee injury the year before, Lewis didn't look like the same player who dominated defenses when healthy. He ran as though he were saving himself for the NFL. And while that might not have endeared him to fans, the approach worked out wonderfully for his pro career in which he amassed more than 10,000 yards rushing in 10 NFL seasons.
But before his injury, Lewis helped UT win a national championship. Fans remember that.
Fans also will remember that Hunter hasn't helped them win much of anything, as exemplified by his play in last week's 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt during which he was hit in the head by a pass and chose to backpedal after a pass reception, rather than fight forward for a first
down only a yard away.
Bray's play has been more maddening for fans. He can make pro-like throws and make them look easy. He also can make you wonder why anyone would consider drafting him.
On one play, scouts will marvel at the smooth, quick release and the way the ball jumps out of his hand. On another, they will scratch their heads at the breakdown in mechanics and inexplicable decision-making under pressure.
If UT's next coach is also a quarterback guru (think "Bobby Petrino"), Bray could really benefit from another college season. But given how little UT has won with him at quarterback, fans might be as ready for a new quarterback as they are a new coach.