KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A new football chapter begins for a group of Tennessee VFLs who changed the trajectory of the program as the three-day 2023 NFL Draft gets underway from Kansas City’s Union Station on Thursday evening.
ESPN, ABC and NFL Network will televise the event with round one set for 8 p.m. ET Thursday. Rounds two and three get underway at 7 p.m. Friday, while rounds four through seven take place beginning at noon Saturday.
This year’s historic group of Vols will join the already 379 all-time selected UT players dating back to 1936, which includes the 1967 AFL Draft merger.
Tennessee is poised to have five players come off the board during the draft’s first two days, including multiple potential first rounders. Last season, five Vols were selected for the entire draft following Josh Heupel‘s first season on campus and that number will grow immensely this weekend.
Offensive tackle Darnell Wright, who did allow a sack in 895 offensive snaps last season, is in great position to become the 47th Vol chosen in the first round of a draft. Currently, Tennessee’s 46 all-time first round draftees rank top 10 nationally. Wright is considered the best right tackle in the draft and proved it all fall.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker has put on a master class over the last five months in how to recover from an ACL injury in preparation for draft day. Hooker’s stock has skyrocketed, and he could possibly become the third Vol quarterback selected in the first round, joining Peyton Manning (1998) and Heath Shuler (1994).
Hooker took another step in his rehab with a drop back passing session on Wednesday morning. Hooker’s well-documented journey from Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, to Virginia Tech to Rocky Top saw him accumulate 11,053 yards of total offense, 80 passing touchdowns and only 12 interceptions in his six seasons. In his two seasons at Tennessee, he fired 58 touchdown passes to only five picks, including a stellar 27:2 ratio during a 2022 campaign in which he was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Tennessee enters the weekend having produced at least one wide receiver draftee in three straight drafts, and that number will climb to four with Cedric Tillman and 2022 Biletnikoff Award winner Jalin Hyatt expected to come off the board early. It would mark the first time since 2013 that the Vols produced multiple wide receivers selected in the same draft. Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter achieved the feat that season.
Edge rusher Byron Young, who shined in two seasons on Rocky Top, has been called one of the biggest sleepers in the draft with his best football still ahead of him. The 2022 first-team All-SEC recipient tested off the charts at the NFL Combine with a 4.43 40-yard dash that was second-best among defensive linemen in 2023 and the fourth-best at that position in the past 20 years. He also led all defensive linemen with an 11’0″ broad jump.
Other Vols who could hear their names called this weekend include offensive guard Jerome Carvin, linebacker Jeremy Banks, tight end Princeton Fant, punter Paxton Brooks, defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus and safety Trevon Flowers. Fant developed into one of the SEC’s most versatile and physical playmakers last fall, accounting for eight touchdowns. Carvin was a mainstay on the offensive line and allowed only two sacks over the last 26 games of his career.
Undrafted Tennessee players will still have an opportunity to sign with a team through the free agent process. Several Vols have thrived as undrafted prospects. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who played quarterback at Dudley High School prior to Hooker, went undrafted in 2018 but will enter his sixth NFL season in 2023 after signing a $6 million deal with the Detroit Lions last month. Offensive lineman Ramon Foster played 11 NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and proved the doubters wrong.
For Heupel, the weekend will serve as another strong reminder of the turnaround of the program in a short amount of time and that development is key. Heupel ranks top 10 among head coaches nationally in NFL Draft picks produced in the last two drafts combined with 10.
Collectively in the last two seasons, the group of VFL NFL prospects:
- won 18 games, the third-most in the SEC during that span
- notched seven victories over Top 25 teams, the third-most in the nation during that span
- reached the program’s first New Year’s Six bowl berth in the College Football Playoff era and dominated ACC champion Clemson in the 2022 Orange Bowl
- ascended to the program’s first No. 1 national ranking since 1999
- produced the program’s first 11-win season in two decades in 2022