Tyler Byrd could have easily transferred and sought more playing time elsewhere.
The senior wide receiver arrived at Tennessee in 2016 as a heralded recruit out of Naples, Florida. He flashed early in his freshman season but gradually saw his role diminish.
Byrd had only four catches total the last two seasons as the Vols hit rock bottom and changed coaches.
Instead of complaining, Byrd stayed the course and embraced every chance he got to play on special teams.
Byrd’s faith was rewarded Saturday when he scored the game-sealing touchdown in Tennessee’s 20-10 victory over Mississippi State at Neyland Stadium.
Byrd caught a short pass from backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, turned the corner along the left sideline and sprinted into the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that secured Tennessee’s first SEC victory and first victory against an FBS program this season.
“I feel like if you leave somewhere, you’re kind of giving up, and I don’t want to give up,” Byrd says. “I’ll just fight for it, and if I don’t win and come up short, that’s fine with me.”
Byrd is an embodiment of the entire Tennessee team this season.
Although many have counted the Vols out after a disastrous start, they continue to battle to show improvement.
The victory against Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2) was a much-needed confidence boost, highlighted by a dominant defensive performance. The Vols (2-4, 1-2) registered seven sacks, recorded 10 tackles for loss, forced three turnovers and shut down MSU’s rushing attack.
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill entered the game as the SEC’s leading rusher (119.2 yards per game), and the Vols limited him to 13 yards on 11 carries.
After tallying only eight sacks through the first five games, Tennessee nearly doubled its season total with the output against MSU.
“That really all started with practice,” Tennessee senior linebacker Daniel Bituli explains. “The coaches preach that all the time. We’ve got to take ownership and go in there and watch some film as much as possible, and I really feel like guys did that this week.
“I saw guys staying late nights watching film. I saw how serious we took the communication during practices, how hard the guys ran to the ball and how much making a mistake really meant to a guy.”
Tennessee will be facing a much bigger defensive challenge this weekend as the Vols visit No. 1-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0) Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has a fleet of talented wide receivers at his disposal.
It will be a homecoming for Tennessee second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, an Alabama native who played for the Tide, served on the coaching staff from 2007-12 and was the program’s defensive coordinator before being hired away by UT.
“This is the rivalry. This is the game,” Pruitt acknowledges. “I grew up watching it, I had an opportunity to play in it. I’ve had the opportunity to coach in it – now on both sides – so this week does kind of get you going.”
Given all they’ve been through this season, the Vols didn’t waste an opportunity to revel in the victory over MSU. Once the final whistle blew, the UT players sprinted over to the student section to celebrate with their classmates and sing the alma mater.
They continued dancing in the locker room, even getting the mild-mannered Pruitt to showcase some moves.
Senior defensive back Nigel Warrior hopped up onto the edge of the student section while getting pats on the back, high-fives and cheers.
“That felt good. I feel the presence, and they help us out a lot,” Warrior says. “I just had to show my love back to the fans. The student section is loud, everyone is loud. Me jumping into the crowd was just my appreciation.”
The giddiness was appropriate considering the recent focus during practice. Along with stressing communication and intensity, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker has reminded the Vols to get back to their roots and the reason they fell in love with the sport.
“He said when we were younger, we all had that little boy that just wanted to play football no matter what,” Warrior says. “We came out and played like those little boys that were in the front yard, backyard, actually wanted to go ball out and just wanted to touch the ball.”
Nobody has wanted to touch the ball more than Byrd. He patiently waited to get his chance again on offense, and delivered when his number was called against MSU.
He had yet to catch a pass through the first five games, but finished with three catches for 56 yards and the crucial touchdown.
“Tyler, he has a really good attitude,” Pruitt says. “He comes to practice with energy every single day. He probably runs more yardage around that field than anybody. He’s always been kind of a physical guy, used a little bit in the run game. He’s worked hard to develop his hands, and it was good.”
Byrd’s teammates were thrilled to see him garner the spotlight after a long wait in the shadows. He received two key blocks from freshman receivers during his run after the catch and was mobbed by teammates once he reached the end zone.
“It’s a great moment, like Wanya (Morris) said. Tyler works his butt off day in, and day out,” says UT junior Trey Smith, who was named the SEC’s Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week this week. “He comes to work every day. It’s a success, and a great feeling, especially as a team.”
Byrd wants to serve as an example for any younger teammates who may be discouraged by their roles or wonder if they will get an opportunity to contribute in the future.
“Hopefully they see my story and just try to stay the course, be consistent,” Byrd says. “Just be hard-working and just go to work every day, and you just don’t quit.”