Ds Scholarship

Explaining Tennessee football roster crunch and why it’s been mostly quiet in transfer portal

Tennessee football was as quiet in the late signing period Wednesday as it has been in the transfer portal, adding one scholarship player via each source.

The first is the norm. The second is the exception. But both are relevant in a roster crunch that appears to be affecting UT more than most teams in the SEC.

“I think we have to be very selective (in considering transfers) at this point in time,” coach Josh Heupel said.

Defensive lineman Jayson Jenkins, a three-star prospect from Bordertown, New Jersey, signed on Wednesday. That brought UT’s 2022 signing class to 21 players. In the transfer portal, the Vols added former Florida offensive lineman Gerald Mincey and notable preferred walk-ons, who are already enrolled.

UT has 79 scholarship players for its 2022 roster, including 72 on campus and seven freshmen arriving in the summer, of the maximum 85 allotted by the NCAA.

It’s unclear if the Vols plan to fill all 85 before preseason practice begins in August, especially since Heupel admits he must be judicious in managing the roster.

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TRANSFER TRACKER: Here are the Tennessee football players in transfer portal

Potential scholarship cuts in an open NCAA investigation, an active transfer portal and heightened expectations for the Vols’ 2022 season are all factors.

Is Tennessee still self-imposing scholarship cuts?

UT played last season with as few as 71 scholarship players, as players entered the transfer portal throughout the fall.

That didn’t include seven super seniors. They are players whose eligibility was extended one season because of the COVID-19 pandemic but did not count against the cap of 85 scholarships.

UT’s scholarship reductions were likely presented by the university to the NCAA as a self-imposed penalty to the investigation into recruiting violations committed under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Are the Vols also cutting scholarships from the 2022 roster as an extension of that self-imposed penalty? UT Chancellor Donde Plowman, athletics director Danny White and Heupel declined to answer, citing the open NCAA investigation as the reason for their silence.

But UT’s lack of activity in the otherwise frenzied transfer portal — plus some simple arithmetic — points to the Vols’ challenges in roster management.

Why Vols lost more than they gained in transfer portal

In the transfer portal, UT picked up only one scholarship player while the other 13 SEC teams have added an average of almost six players apiece.

The Vols could add a few more transfers in the spring when traffic in the portal is expected to spike again. But that may depend on whether more UT players enter the portal after spring practice to free up scholarships.

Since August, UT has lost 11 scholarship players in the portal.

Quarterback Harrison Bailey (UNLV), offensive lineman K’Rojhn Calbert (Eastern Kentucky), running back Tiyon Evans (Louisville), quarterback Brian Maurer (Stephen F. Austin), running back Tee Hodge (Indiana State), linebacker Morven Joseph (Florida) Atlantic) and tight end Trinity Bell (Iowa Western Community College) have picked a new school.

Offensive lineman Chris Akporoghene, running back Dee Beckwith, athlete Kaemen Marley and wide receiver Andison Coby have not announced their new school.

Those departures made room for the new signees, and UT capitalized with a 2022 class ranked in the top 15 by 247Sports Composite.

Heupel acknowledged the Vols must be selective in dipping into the portal while trying to sign a traditional class of recruits.

“For sure. Absolutely. The balance of how you’re building your roster in general is extremely important,” Heupel said. “(You must consider) the type of kids you’re bringing in — balancing the long-term development and stability inside your program with patching certain holes you may or may not have.

“I think we have to be very selective.”

UT swung and missed on landing two transfers. Albany defensive end Jared Verse chose Florida State over UT and others. Wyoming wide receiver Isaiah Neyor committed to the Vols but then flipped to Texas.

Both players would’ve filled an immediate need in the lineup, and UT doesn’t have the luxury of chasing transfers without a targeted role in mind.

“You have to be that way,” Heupel said. “We’ve got very specific issues and needs (in regards to) depth, short term, long term, special teams, all of that in where we’re at.”

Super seniors’ scholarships didn’t count, but they do now

Scholarships have opened in traditional ways.

When cornerback Alontae Taylor and offensive lineman Cade Mays declared for the NFL Draft, two spots opened for 2022. And any traditional senior — that is, not a super senior — leaving after last season also opened a scholarship.

The asterisk is that super seniors count against the 85-scholarship cap in 2022 after they didn’t in 2021. College coaches have complained that it adds a layer of roster management to an already difficult task.

It’s a catch-22 for the Vols. Players opting to return as super seniors eat up scholarships, but they’re needed for UT to win in Heupel’s second season.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker, offensive lineman Jerome Carvin, linebacker Solon Page, tight end Princeton Fant, safety Trevon Flowers and kicker Chase McGrath are among those planning to play as super seniors in 2022.

Defensive lineman LaTrell Bumpus is a repeat super senior because he took a redshirt last season after playing only four games. His scholarship did not count against the 85 cap last season, but it will in 2022.

Replacing scholarship players with notable walk-ons

UT is bolstering its roster in a creative way by adding preferred walk-ons who potentially can play at the level of a scholarship player. And they are from Tennessee or have ties to the Vols.

Appalachian State quarterback Navy Shuler, Central Florida tight end Charlie Browder and Nebraska linebacker Jackson Hannah were under scholarship at their previous schools, but they aren’t at UT.

Shuler, the son of former Vols star quarterback Heath Shuler, could add depth while four-star freshman quarterback Tayven Jackson develops.

Browder, who grew up in Kingsport as a UT fan, signed at UCF when Heupel was the coach there. He fills the spot previously held by Bell, a reserve tight end on scholarship who entered the portal.

Hannah, a Nashville native, could play on special teams and add depth to a thin linebacking corps.

Knox West’s Shannon Blair and Greenbrier’s Derek Taylor, both three-star athletes, were among the preferred walk-ons announcing this week that they will play for the Vols.

Blair de-committed from Michigan State in December and chose UT over a late scholarship offer from Charlotte. As late as June, Taylor had scholarship offers from Michigan State, Marshall, Austin Peay and Eastern Kentucky, 247Sports reported.

Taylor’s Greenbrier teammate, defensive lineman Nathan Robinson, is a prime target for UT’s 2023 recruiting class. On Tuesday, he announced that UT, Ole Miss and Kentucky are his top three schools.

By the time Robinson makes his decision, the Vols hope their roster crunch is in the past.

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

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