Four-years ago UT fans would probably consider January 15 to be a very important day for the Volunteer football team because of a commitment from a big time recruit. But in recent years, the date for underclassmen to decide to enter the National Football League has proved to be a somber day for the university.
This year, junior tight end Jason Witten and sophomore receiver Kelley Washington decided to enter the draft. Witten’s announcement came on last Tuesday and Washington’s came some 24 hours later on Wednesday, the last chance for underclassmen to declare for the draft.
“The past three years have been a great experience for me and my family,” Witten, an Elizabethton native, said at an emotional press conference. “I came to Tennessee to grow as a person and as a man. I think I’ve done that.
“On the field, I thank Coach Fulmer and my teammates,” Witten added. “I couldn’t have done it without you guys in the back. I want to give God all the glory. If it weren’t for Him, I wouldn’t be in this position today. Over the past three years, I’ve had a lot of experiences, from playing defensive end to moving to tight end. Coach Fulmer put me in that position and that was the best decision he could have made. At the time, I was questioning, but it’s been great ever since then. He’s allowed me to be in the situation I’m in.”
Wide receiver Kelly Washington, whose final season was plagued with injuries, made a very tough decision to enter the NFL draft. Some believed that he would stay because of the drop in his draft status because of injury.
Washington’s reception and receiving yardage totals ranked third on the team despite appearing in only four of 13 contests, and his season averages were 5.8 catches per game for 110.8 yards per game.
“In January of last year, I decided not to enter the NFL draft so I could help the team and improve my skills as a wide receiver,” Washington said in a statement released by UT Sports Information to announce the sophomore’s decision. “I made this decision in what I thought would be the best for my family, the team and me. During the Georgia game, I was injured and could not continue to play because of the injury. While I was on the sideline, I had a difficult time watching and not participating. If you don’t walk in my shoes, I know it is hard for you to realize how I felt and how much I missed playing. However, the doctors told me I couldn’t play until I had fully recovered from my injury.”
In the past four years the Volunteers have had eight underclassmen declare for the NFL, as opposed to only three in the previous ten years. It’s a credit to the Volunteers coaching staff and a good tool for recruiting, but hurts the team’s overall leadership when players leave before they become seniors.

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