KNOXVILLE – Three Tennessee players won’t return in 2014, coach Butch Jones confirmed on Thursday afternoon.
A fourth is still weighing his options.
Running back Tom Smith, defensive back Tino Thomas and wide receiver Paul Harris have all been granted a release from their scholarship and will move on from the program.
Junior linebacker A.J. Johnson is still considering an early entry to the NFL draft, but hasn’t made a final decision. The junior All-SEC selection is coming off a 106-tackle performance in 2013. NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler recently told Nooga.com that Johnson could go in the 2nd-3rd round range in 2014 if he chooses to depart Knoxville early.
“It is our job to educate our players [about staying or leaving for the NFL],” Jones said. “That is part of the Vol for Life program, part of our NFL readiness program and educating him. We present the facts to them, what we are hearing around the league, where we think they are at – the pros of coming back and the cons. Give them as much advice as possible.
“At the end of the day it comes down to them making a decision. We do, we try to present the reasons why. We are building something special here, we try to present that to them and then they have to make that decision, what is best for them and their family."
The departing trio of Harris, Smith and Thomas made a limited impact during their time at UT, mostly playing in backup or special teams roles.
Perhaps the most notable of the three is Harris. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound native of Accokeek, Md., was a four-star recruit in Jones’ first signing class last year. He enrolled last winter and appeared in five games during the 2013 season, recording just one reception for 15 yards while battling a nagging hamstring injury.
Thomas, a Memphis native, appeared in three games on special teams in 2013. Smith, a redshirt sophomore from Apopka, Fla., finished his career with 37 carries for 129 yards.
With all three players relatively low on the depth chart, the attrition wasn’t too surprising. Perhaps the more noteworthy news is that it is just three leaving at this point.
Jones said every player on the roster is academically eligible after the team posted its second-best fall GPA in recorded program history. He also said he’s not expecting any additional departures at this point, though it is common for players to re-evaluate their situation over the winter break and throughout spring practice.
“As of right now [Smith, Thomas and Harris] are all that I anticipate, but as we all know the world of college football is ever changing,” Jones added.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga