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Tennessee Football: 2021 Team Awards

Hendon Hooker, Tennessee Volunteers Football

Hendon Hooker went from backup quarterback to being a record-setter at the position as he completely transformed the Volunteeers' offense

The Tennessee Volunteers certainly had the deck stacked against them heading into year 1 of the Josh Heupel era on Rocky Top. However, Heupel and his Vols somehow managed to overcome much of the offseason adversity on their way to a successful 7-5 season, earning a well-deserved trip to the Music City Bowl to face Purdue.

Along the way, there have been plenty of memorable moments, standout performances, and several Tennessee players deserving of accolades. With that in mind, it only seems fitting to take a look back at some of the highs and lows that encompassed an entertaining 2021 campaign for the Vols.

Offensive MVP: Hendon Hooker, QB

There was no bigger catalyst for Tennessee’s success this season than Hooker. In 12 games (10 as a starter), the Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist completed 69 percent of his pass attempts for 2,567 yards with an impeccable 26:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His impressive 182.4 passer rating is the best for a season in school history and was good enough to lead the SEC and rank fourth nationally. Hooker also proved to be an effective threat with his legs, adding 561 yards and five scores on the ground.

Defensive MVP: Theo Jackson, DB

A reasonable argument could be made for Jeremy Banks, Alontae Taylor, or Matthew Butler here. But Jackson’s impact and leadership were second to none this season for a Tennessee defense that managed to exceed expectations. In 11 games, the “Super Senior” racked up 73 tackles, nine tackles for a loss (tied for team-high), and 1.5 sacks. He also added a pick-six and ranked third in the SEC with 12 passes defended from his STAR/nickelback position. Jackson was the only defensive player on the Vols named to the All-SEC team (coaches) — earning second-team honors.

Best Freshman: Jaylen Wright, RB

The speedy freshman was limited to eight games as he battled injury throughout the season. Nevertheless, Wright made the most of his opportunities, rushing for 355 yards and four touchdowns (5.2 ypc). He was particularly strong down the stretch — leading all SEC freshmen in the month of November with 259 rushing yards and 64.75 yards per game. He also earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for his standout performance against Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale.

Best Play of the Season: Alontae Taylor's pick-six against Kentucky

Tennessee had no shortage of spectacular plays this season, most of them coming on the offensive side of the football. But none were bigger than Taylor's 56-yard interception return for a touchdown against No. 18-ranked Kentucky on the road. It was truly a game-changer and if not for this play, the Vols probably miss out on their biggest win of the season.

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Best Performance (Player): Hendon Hooker vs. Kentucky

Hooker had several memorable performances throughout the season. But his performance in the 45-42 victory over the Wildcats in Lexington stood out the most. Hooker made easy work of the Kentucky defense — completing 15 of his 20 pass attempts for 316 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. He also ran for 41 yards in the win to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Best Performance (Team): 62-24 win over Missouri on the road

The Vols came into this matchup as a slight underdog on the road and proceeded to dominate from start to finish. Tennessee racked up a season-high 62 points and 683 yards of offense to give Josh Heupel his first SEC victory as a head coach. The Vols also set a school record for the most rushing yards in a road game with 458. Meanwhile, the Tennessee defense limited All-SEC running back Tyler Badie to just 41 rushing yards and a season-low 1.9 yards per carry in the blowout win.

Defining Moment: Hendon Hooker taking over at quarterback

Hooker began the season as the second-team quarterback behind Joe Milton. But the Virginia Tech transfer was quickly forced into action in the second game of the season against Pitt after Milton went down with a leg injury. Hooker got the starting nod the following week and never looked back, transforming Tennessee's fast-paced offense into one of the most productive units in the country. If not for that opportunity, the 2021 season probably would have played out in a much different manner.

Biggest Surprise: Cedric Tillman, WR

Tillman entered the 2021 campaign flying well under the radar with just eight catches total during his first three seasons in Knoxville. But it didn’t take long for the redshirt junior to emerge as one of the top wide receivers in the SEC this season — hauling in a team-high 57 catches for 971 yards and nine touchdowns. Tillman was particularly impressive in the second half of his breakout season, producing at least one touchdown catch in each of Tennessee’s last six games, while averaging 120 yards per contest during that span. For his efforts, Tillman was included in Pro Football Focus’ All-SEC team as a third-team selection.

Biggest Disappointment: 31-26 loss to Ole Miss

The Vols had a golden opportunity to upset Ole Miss and spoil Lane Kiffin's return to Rocky Top, only to come up short in the closing seconds in the heartbreaking 31-26 loss to the Rebels. To make matters worse, frustration among the Tennessee faithful boiled over following some questionable officiating and a host of Ole Miss players faking injuries in a bid to slow down Tennessee's up-tempo offense. That ultimately led to several Vol fans hurling projectiles toward the Ole Miss sideline, including a golf ball and a bottle of mustard, creating a 20-minute delay. It was undoubtedly the low point of the season for the Vols.

Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Velus Jones Jr., WR/KR/PR

Jones made a huge impact for the Vols both as a playmaker and as a team leader in his final season in Knoxville. The standout wide receiver and return specialist set career highs for receptions (52), receiving yards (722), and receiving touchdowns (6), while also ranking third in the SEC in all-purpose yards with 1,515 during the 2021 campaign. He had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the win over South Alabama and ranked second nationally in punt return average (16 ypr). The first-team All-SEC selection also was the only player in college football this season to compile 700-plus receiving yards, 500-plus kick return yards, and 200-plus punt return yards. Cade Mays, Theo Jackson, Alontae Taylor and Matthew Butler are a few other Vol seniors that will be sorely missed in 2022 as well.

Player to Watch in 2022: Byron Young, Edge

All eyes will definitely be on Hooker next season. However, the Vols appear to have a star in the making on the defensive side of the football in Young. The junior college transfer came into the 2021 season with big expectations, but got off to a slow start after being held out of Tennessee's first two games due to NCAA eligibility rules. That said, the talented edge rusher really came on strong for the Vols down the stretch, generating at least one sack in each of the last four contests to finish the regular season with a team-leading 5.5 sacks. Young appears poised for a breakout 2022 campaign.

Offseason Storyline: Transfer portal

It’s been a while since the Vols last made their way into an offseason without a long list of serious concerns. But for the first time in a long time, that appears to be the case for a Tennessee football program that is fairly stable at the moment. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren’t question marks for a team that still has depth issues and some big shoes to fill heading into the 2022 season. That begs the question — How will Josh Heupel use the transfer portal this offseason to help bolster the roster and who will the Vols be able to bring into the fold? There's also the matter of who Tennessee may lose to transfer this offseason.

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.