KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Following the best season of Tennessee football in 20 years, the Volunteers are expected to be well-represented at the 2023 NFL Draft. Players have gone from relative NFL afterthoughts at the start of the 2022 season to some of the top prospects at their positions. So who is waiting to hear their names called?
Darnell Wright – Offensive lineman
Arguably no player in this year’s draft has improved their prospects in the last eight months more than this 6’6″ Huntingdon, W. Va. native.
Wright put together an All-SEC First Team 2022 campaign at right tackle after spending 2021 on the left and wowed analysts with his performance against Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who is expected to be one of the first players selected on Thursday.
He was invited to the 2023 Senior Bowl where he continued to impress scouts and was voted his team’s OL Practice Player of the Week by his peers. ESPN senior draft analyst and insider Matt Miller predicted the Pittsburgh Steelers to select Wright 17th overall in his final mock draft, which would make him the highest draft selection from Tennessee since Derek Barnett went 14th in 2017.
Hendon Hooker – Quarterback
The star quarterback’s meteoric rise from backup at Virginia Tech to the leader of Tennessee’s football renaissance has launched him among the top QB prospects in the 2023 Draft.
Hooker’s senior season on Rocky Top was perhaps the greatest by a quarterback in program history. He became the first Vol since Peyton Manning to win the SEC Player of the Year Award and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting while breaking several school records.
He set the school record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (20) and attempted 261 consecutive passes without an interception, the most in school history and the third-longest streak in SEC history. He is Tennessee’s career leader in completion percentage and passer efficiency.
While he continues to recover from a torn ACL, draft insiders have said Hooker has impressed NFL teams with his work ethic and leadership during the draft interview process. Many projected him as a first-round pick prior to the injury and he may still be with several teams looking to select a signal-caller early.
Jalin Hyatt- Wide Receiver
After a combined 502 receiving yards and four touchdowns in his first two years, Hyatt exploded in 2022. He set a single-season program record with 15 receiving touchdowns and became the first player in school history to win the Biletnikoff Award.
With 1,267 receiving yards, he finished just 31 yards behind Robert Meachem for the most in a single season at Tennessee.
Hyatt’s five touchdowns against Alabama were the most ever by a Vol in a single game. In December, he announced he would forgo his senior season and enter the 2023 NFL Draft.
The South Carolina native has blazing speed, recording a 40-yard dash time of 4.40 seconds at the NFL Combine. ESPN rated Hyatt as the seventh-best wide receiver prospect. Most projections have him as a late first-round or early second-round selection.
Cedric Tillman- Wide Receiver
Though an ankle injury limited him to just six games in 2022, Tillman came in just one spot behind Hyatt in ESPN’s list of best wide receiver draft prospects.
In 2021, Tillman set a school record for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch and became Tennessee’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2012. He showed out in Tennessee’s games against Alabama and Georgia in 2021, racking up a combined 17 catches for 352 yards and two touchdowns.
Standing at 6’3″ and weighing over 210 pounds, his physicality and toughness have made him an enticing NFL prospect. He is projected as a second or third-round pick by most outlets.
Byron Young- Defensive End
Young transferred to Tennessee from Georgia Military College in 2021 and put together two solid seasons at Tennessee. He started all 13 games in 2022, ranking top five in the SEC with 42 QB pressures and sixth in sacks.
He capped his career on Rocky Top with a flourish, recording three tackles and two sacks in Tennessee’s win over No. 7 Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Young was invited to the 2023 Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, where turned heads with his exceptional athletic measurables. He posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.43, the fourth-fastest by a defensive lineman since 2003. His 11-foot broad jump and 38-inch vertical were well above the 90th percentile for his position.
NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein rated him as a second to third-round talent. ESPN senior draft analyst and insider Matt Miller’s final mock draft placed Young in the third round.
Tennessee has a few other players that could end up on NFL rosters by the end of the weekend. ESPN rated Jeremy Banks as the 14th-best inside linebacker prospect and 217th player overall with NFL.com projecting him as a fourth-round selection.
Offensive guard Jerome Carvin will be hoping to hear his name, despite being selected in the USFL Draft in February. Defensive lineman Elijah Simmons and punter Paxton Brooks round out Tennessee’s group of NFL hopefuls in 2023.
Editors note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jalin Hyatt set a school record for receiving yards in a single-game. We regret the error.