KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Byron Young was on his way back from a workout at Planet Fitness in January 2019 when he noticed a flyer that changed his life, and ultimately, helped change the trajectory of Tennessee‘s football program.
It was a flyer publicizing open tryouts for the Georgia Military School football team. At the time, Young was working long hours as an assistant manager at Dollar General in Columbus, Georgia. He’d also done some moonlighting at Burger King and later worked some night shifts at a Circle K convenience store.
“I wasn’t on anybody’s radar, at least not on anybody’s football radar. But I stayed in shape and never gave up on my dream of playing college football,” said Young, a 24-year-old senior outside linebacker and the Vols’ top pass-rusher. “It wasn’t an easy path, but a lot of guys on this team didn’t have easy paths. That’s a big part of what’s made us who we are.”
So just who are these Vols, other than a team that has risen from the football ashes over the past decade and a half to grab the No. 1 spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Georgia at Sanford Stadium?
Put simply, it’s a team with a lot more five-star stories than five-star recruits.
“A lot of guys on this team were told what they weren’t or what they couldn’t do,” said junior receiver Jalin Hyatt, who leads the nation with 14 touchdown catches. “That has a way of bringing a team together because you know what the guy beside you had to do just to get here.”
Up and down Tennessee’s roster, there are castoffs, transfers who were given up on by their previous schools, breakout players who have seemingly come out of nowhere, players who have battled through adversity or were spurned during the high school recruiting process and coaches who were fired.
“I think everything that everybody’s gone through before they got here or while they were here is a part of the fabric of who they are,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, himself a castoff from Oklahoma, his alma mater. “I think it reveals the character and the competitiveness of those individuals too. I don’t know if there’s a chip on their shoulder necessarily, but it’s a part of the reason why we continue to get better.”
No player personifies the identity of this Tennessee team more than quarterback Hendon Hooker, the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite. It was made clear to Hooker following the 2020 season that his days as a quarterback at Virginia Tech were over and he needed to find a new place to play. He found that place in Tennessee.
Hyatt is on the kind of tear receivers dream about with 11 touchdown receptions in his past four games, after catching a total of four TDs in his first two seasons on campus. As a high school recruit, Hyatt was told he was too skinny and too frail to play at either of the Power 5 schools (Clemson and South Carolina) in his home state of South Carolina. That was despite catching 57 touchdown passes during his high school career at powerhouse Dutch Fork, which is located about 20 miles from South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.
Kicker Chase McGrath started his career as a walk-on at USC before tearing a ligament in his knee as a sophomore, sitting out the entire COVID-19 season in 2020, then transferring to Tennessee.
His knuckleball 40-yard field goal was the game-winner against Alabama, snapping the Vols’ 16-game losing streak in the series and setting off a wild celebration at Neyland Stadium.
Cedric Tillman, the Vols’ All-SEC receiver from a year ago, came to Tennessee from Las Vegas as a two-star recruit. His other offers were from Hawai’i, UNLV and Weber State. Tillman has missed most of this season after undergoing ankle surgery. He returned last week against Kentucky, but the Vols limited his snaps. Heupel said Tillman is “ready to roll” against Georgia.
There are similar stories on the coaching staff.
Rodney Garner, one of the top defensive line coaches and recruiters in the country, was a part of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn staff that was fired following the 2020 season.
Even Heupel was unceremoniously dumped in 2014 as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, the school he helped lead to a national championship in 2000 as its QB and the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Heupel originally landed in Oklahoma by way of Weber State and Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim, Utah, and only after then-OU offensive coordinator Mike Leach convinced the rest of the Sooners’ staff that Heupel was worth a scholarship.
“We all have some cool stories, and you know, we’re not done writing them,” Hooker said. “We all have the same goal.”
That goal — the first step, getting to Atlanta and winning an SEC championship — was unimaginable less than two years ago when Heupel took over a program that was in shambles with 30-plus players transferring out and an NCAA investigation looming. The university had launched its own internal probe into recruiting improprieties that led to the firing of former coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause.
But now that goal appears within the Vols’ reach, and they can take a major step toward it Saturday if they can snap a five-game losing streak to Georgia in only the third AP No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular-season matchup in SEC history.
Tennessee last won the national championship in 1998, and Garner, who was on the staff in 1996 and 1997, helped recruit several of the core players of that team, including Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, Cosey Coleman and Deon Grant.
When Garner (who played at Auburn under Pat Dye) had a chance to come back to Tennessee under Heupel, it was a no-brainer for Garner, his wife Kim and their six daughters.
“Back then, you could walk anywhere with that ‘T’ on your chest, and it commanded respect,” Garner said of his earlier stint at the school. “Even though I didn’t play here, this has always been a special place to me, and to play even a small part in its resurgence means a lot. I’m proud of the way these guys have played for each other, just like those teams in the ’90s. It was always more about Tennessee than it was about the individuals. That’s the thing we had to get back to when Coach Heupel and all of us got here.
“Everybody needed to understand how blessed they were to be at Tennessee versus that Tennessee was blessed to have you. It’s been awesome to see these guys come together and play for something bigger than themselves.”
It never hurts when you’re chasing a championship to have your best players on offense (Hooker) and defense (Young) also be two of your best leaders. They’re both 24 and have seen a little bit of everything.
Hooker started 15 games at Virginia Tech over three seasons, but never got the feeling that he was truly then-coach Justin Fuente’s guy. After a game against Clemson in 2020, Hooker began shivering and shaking on the sideline after losing a fumbled snap in the third quarter. Hooker walked back to the locker room with a trainer.
Fuente told reporters afterward that Hooker was “cold.” Hooker said he had a reaction to some medication he was taking for a heart condition he had in 2019. Either way, he never played another snap at quarterback for Virginia Tech.
“I don’t want to make assumptions, but I had a feeling something was going on at the beginning of that season. Hendon won the job, but they said the other kid [Braxton Burmeister] deserved to play,” said Hooker’s father, Alan Hooker, who was a North Carolina A&T Hall of Fame quarterback.
“Somehow, some way, they just decided Hendon wasn’t their guy. They didn’t have complete trust in him, and he wasn’t going to be invited back. It was pretty much that simple.”
Hooker’s steady demeanor is unchanged whether he’s trying to elude a 250-pound defensive end, talking to a reporter or rallying his teammates. But his eyes narrow at any mention that Virginia Tech gave up on him following that Clemson game because the coaches there made it seem like he was soft.
“I’m sure you can ask my opponents, and they’d tell you I’m not soft at all,” Hooker said. “And I don’t get the whole ‘cold’ thing either. In 2019, we played in pouring-down rain against Pittsburgh, and I threw three touchdowns with short sleeves on. I didn’t hear anything then about being cold or soft.”
Once he arrived at Tennessee, Hooker had to prove himself all over again. There was also a twist. Less than three weeks after he got on campus, Pruitt was fired as Tennessee’s coach, meaning Hooker had a whole new offensive system to learn, a system that couldn’t have been a better fit.
Mel Kiper Jr. details the 2023 NFL draft projection he sees for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker.
But even then, Hooker still hadn’t won the starting job after his first spring practice under Heupel. The Vols brought in Michigan transfer Joe Milton right after the spring, and Milton was named the starter for the first two games of the 2021 season.
But since moving in as the starter in Week 3 in 2021, Hooker has accounted for 59 touchdowns, completed 69.2% of his passes and thrown just three interceptions.
“We had seen him on tape and knew he was dynamic potentially with his feet,” Heupel said. “Now, did we envision that first spring that he was going to be playing like this? I can’t say that. But the guy has made such strides. It’s crazy, just fundamentally, the mental part of the game and being completely confident and comfortable in himself and being relaxed out there.
“He understands that he doesn’t have to play perfect, and you put all that together, and he’s playing at such an elite level. It’s really fun to watch.”
As great as he’s been on the field, Hooker’s priority is to be a good teammate. He was the first one to volunteer to pick up his right guard, Javontez Spraggins, every morning at 5:30 after Spraggins’ car died.
For the Kentucky game last week, Hooker had several of his old teammates from Virginia Tech come to town after the Hokies had played Thursday night.
“They were all at Hendon’s apartment, sleeping on couches and the floor,” Alan Hooker said.
Young has been the defensive equivalent of Hooker for the Vols. He’s played his way into being a potential early-round NFL draft pick in his second season and leads the team with 13 quarterback pressures. More importantly, he’s one of the most respected voices in the locker room, and his story resonates with the entire team.
After graduating from tiny Carvers Bay High School in Hemingway, South Carolina, in 2017, Young was small for an edge rusher (213 pounds) and didn’t have the grades to get into a four-year college. He wound up at Gulf Coast Prep Sports Academy in Mt. Vernon, Alabama, played two games during the 2017 season, only to have the school abruptly fold.
“The whole thing was a sham, and Byron came back home,” said Ike Young, Byron’s oldest brother. “But he wasn’t about to give up. That’s not how he was raised.”
Young moved to Columbus, Georgia, where Ike and some of his brothers lived. There were 13 children in the family, and Ike is retired from the military. He has a son who is a year older than Byron.
“Byron wasn’t afraid of manual labor. None of us were,” Ike Young said. “We had a wood-burning stove and went out and chopped up wood and dragged it back home.”
That same work ethic kept Young going for nearly a year and a half, whether he was stocking shelves at Dollar General or opening and closing the store.
“I still think about those days and what it taught me,” Young said. “In fact, sometimes when we’re about to run back on the field, [teammate] Roman Harrison will look at me and say, ‘Remember Dollar General. Remember where you came from.'”
Young tried out for and made the Georgia Military School team and blossomed in 2019 as one of the more highly recruited junior college prospects in the country. He got bigger and stronger and was a terror chasing down quarterbacks. The 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19, but his 2019 tape was good enough that several SEC schools pursued him.
One of those schools was Auburn, and Garner was the point man in recruiting Young. At the time, Young was close to picking the Tigers, but as fate would have it, he and Garner ended up together at Tennessee.
“I’m just glad it worked out the way it did because I really wanted him when I was at Auburn before we got fired there,” Garner said. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. I almost came back here to Tennessee when Lane [Kiffin] got the job. I came up here and interviewed and everything. I actually took the job before I came. But I got up here and things just didn’t feel right.”
Sure enough, Kiffin left Tennessee less than a year later for USC.
Young looks back on his journey and has that same “it was meant to be” feeling. He jokes that he has a “senior citizen” on the team in Hooker, who he can relate to amid all the younger players in the program.
“I went the long route to get here and so did Hendon. We weren’t the only ones,” Young said. “A lot of guys had to find new places to play. We’ve found that place, and we’re not close to being done.”
Hyatt thought he had found his place at Virginia Tech when he committed to the Hokies in February 2019. Both Clemson and South Carolina passed on him, primarily because he was 153 pounds coming out of high school and they thought he wasn’t sturdy enough to play at a high level.
“I went to camps at Clemson and South Carolina just to showcase my skills,” Hyatt said. “They just kept saying, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’ But nothing ever came of it.”
It won’t be lost on Hyatt that two of the people who didn’t think he could cut it at South Carolina will be on the Georgia sideline Saturday. Will Muschamp, the Dawgs’ defensive coordinator, was South Carolina’s head coach during Hyatt’s recruitment, while Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s receivers coach, was the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator and receivers coach.
“It sucked not getting an offer from your hometown school because I feel like they should be the first ones to offer,” Hyatt said. “But they never did, and I know why. Things work out the way they’re supposed to, and I’m glad they thought I was too small. It helped lead me here, and look at what all I would have missed.”
Hyatt had offers from other FBS schools and always believed his speed would set him apart despite how thin he was. His father, Jamie, felt the same way.
Jamie remembers a conversation they had with Muschamp the summer before Jalin’s junior year in high school. Jamie said Jalin ran a scorching 40-yard dash and that Muschamp even called Jalin’s high school coach at Dutch Fork, Tom Knotts, to tell him it was one of the fastest 40 times he’d ever seen.
When they met afterward, Jamie said Muschamp looked at Jalin and said, “Man, you’re fast, but you need to eat more peanut butter.”
At that point, nothing else needed to be said.
“I still talk to Coach Muschamp and we chop it up. [Georgia] is recruiting my younger son,” said Jamie, whose son Devin is attending IMG Academy. “But I can tell you — and I don’t think Coach Muschamp meant it personally — that our business was done with South Carolina after that. We needed to move on, and I know Jalin has used it for motivation.”
Hyatt’s commitment to Virginia Tech didn’t last. Former Tennessee national championship-winning quarterback Martin was one of the coaches on Pruitt’s staff who closed the deal on getting Hyatt to flip to the Vols.
“I’d always wanted to play in the SEC too, because you want to play against the best,” Hyatt said.
One of the first people Hooker texted when he got to campus was Hyatt. They met when Hyatt was on a recruiting visit to Virginia Tech.
“Where do we meet? Let’s go throw,” Hooker’s text read.
And as Hyatt would get to the football complex every day, the first car he would see was Hooker’s.
“His car was the last one there too,” Hyatt said. “I thought, ‘Does he ever leave?'”
Hooker’s focus, demeanor and work ethic all wore off on Hyatt, not to mention just about everybody else on the team. Hyatt admitted he needed to mature his first couple of years on campus.
But now, there’s not a more dynamic combination in college football than Hooker and Hyatt; the pair has been at the core of an offense that leads the country in scoring (49.4 points per game).
“It’s all of our confidence, really, that’s grown, and that goes straight to Coach Heup,” Hyatt said. “As an offense, I feel like when we step on the field there’s nobody that can stop us. The only people who can stop us are ourselves.”
One of the favorite traditions of the Hooker family is watching Christmas specials every year. A staple is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Alan Hooker looks at this Tennessee team, a team that has surpassed even the wildest expectations, and can’t help but think about Rudolph’s visit to the Land of the Misfit Toys.
“That’s kind of what you have with Tennessee,” Alan Hooker said. “All these guys have different stories, some of them stories of rejection. But in the right setting, they’re a perfect fit.”
And if the Vols have their way, that perfect fit will lead to a perfect season.