Tennessee Volunteers’ Top 10 Returning Players in 2024 Include Nico Iamaleava and James Pearce Jr.

    The Tennessee Volunteers have talent on both sides of the ball in 2024, and their top 10 returning players can set them up for success.

    The Tennessee Volunteers have talent across the board entering 2024 and possess a top-tier roster. With returning players on both sides of the ball and high-profile transfer portal additions, Rocky Top will be an exciting place this fall.

    Who are the top returning players for the Tennessee football program heading into the 2024 college football season?

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    Tennessee Volunteers’ Top 10 Returners in 2024

    Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes that were included on each team’s roster page to open spring camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.

    10) Jermod McCoy, CB

    Jermod McCoy transfers to Rocky Top after an exceptional year with the Oregon State Beavers. The sophomore cornerback still has three years of eligibility remaining and can become a starter in the Vols’ secondary.

    McCoy started five but played in 12 games in 2023, posting 31 tackles, seven pass breakups, and two interceptions. The new Tennessee defensive back is an ascending player with a knack for finding the football, whose career is on an upward trajectory.

    9) Rickey Gibson III, CB

    The Volunteers’ secondary is volatile after existing players left for the NFL Draft or entered the transfer portal. McCoy is a great addition to solidify that room, but Rickey Gibson III would excel in a more expansive role.

    Gibson played in 12 games as a freshman in 2023, primarily in a backup role with special teams reps. However, what we saw from the defensive back was dependable. Against Vanderbilt, Gibson played 39 snaps and only gave up one reception. With more playing time, McCoy can become the Volunteers’ star corner.

    8) Holden Staes, TE

    Tennessee grabbed Holden Staes, the top-ranked tight end in the transfer portal, to add another dimension to their offense. The former Notre Dame TE is an established, ruthless run blocker with the skill set to expand his usage as a receiver.

    With 15 catches for 176 yards and four touchdowns in 2023, Staes will be looking for more targets this fall and should get them. A four-star recruit from Westminster School, he was a multisport athlete in high school, and he has substantial upside waiting to be unlocked as a pass catcher.

    7) Dylan Sampson, RB

    Dylan Sampson had to sit behind Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small in 2023, but he still flashed the production that Tennessee can expect in 2024. With 106 rushing attempts for 604 yards and seven touchdowns, Sampson showed what he can do as a runner.

    Additionally, Sampson had 15 receptions for 175 yards and one touchdown, showing he can be a dynamic weapon out of the backfield this fall. With a track background, the Vols RB should have more usage in 2024 as Heupel looks to put the shifty, explosive RB into action.

    6) Squirrel White, WR

    Squirrel White has established himself as a slot receiver at Tennessee as a pacey, explosive playmaker. After excelling as a freshman in 2022, White led the Vols in receptions in 2023, having 67 receptions for 803 yards and two touchdowns, including three games with over 100 yards.

    MORE: 2024 SEC Power Rankings

    The WR room on Rocky Top should be improved in 2024 compared to the previous year, and White will yet again be an integral part of the Volunteers’ passing attack. At 5’10” and 165 pounds, he may be small, but he is mighty impactful.

    5) Cooper Mays, OL

    Cooper Mays has been a stalwart on the Vols offensive line for four seasons and has been impressive since he played in all 10 games in his freshman season. 2023 was no different, as he didn’t give up any sacks on 463 snaps. The experienced operator has logged over 2,000 snaps and 30 starts in his prolonged college career, showing how integral he is to Tennessee’s plans.

    A standout center, Mays returns in 2024 to anchor an offensive line that should be improved on previous years. The Mays family has a history on Rocky Top, with his brother Cade playing multiple seasons and his father playing in the 1990s.

    4) Lance Heard, OT

    Lance Heard is another transfer portal addition in Knoxville. The highly-touted former LSU Tiger was the second highest-rated OT in the transfer portal and was one of the most encouraging offensive linemen in the SEC in 2023.

    Playing for the Tigers as a freshman a year ago, Heard didn’t allow a sack on 195 snaps, most of which came at right tackle. With a clear line of sight for more playing time at Neyland Stadium, the five-star prospect can flourish in 2024.

    3) Bru McCoy, WR

    Bru McCoy has shown the skill set to be a standout receiver and was even named to the Senior Bowl 2024 preseason watchlist in the 2023 offseason. However, after starting five games, he suffered a season-ending ankle fracture, leading to a return for the upcoming campaign.

    If McCoy can prove he is healthy to go again, he can be the star receiver for the Vols in 2024. A physical pass catcher with an enormous catch radius (at 6’3” and 220 pounds), the former five-star prospect can bloom this fall.

    2) Nico Iamaleava, QB

    2024 will be the Nico Iamaleava show. Replacing Joe Milton, the Tennessee quarterback showed why expectations for him are sky-high with an outstanding performance in the Volunteers’ Citrus Bowl victory.

    A dual-threat quarterback, Iamaleava threw for 151 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 27 yards and three touchdowns in the Citrus Bowl as Tennessee shut out Iowa. The No. 1 recruit from the 2023 recruiting class has all the tools to be successful in 2024 as the Vols look to move up the SEC power rankings.

    1) James Pearce Jr., DE

    James Pearce Jr. is a special player. The Tennessee pass rusher can make a claim for being the top defensive player in the SEC — maybe even the country — and is set to blow up in his junior year.

    KEEP READING: Projecting the 2024-2025 College Football Playoff

    In 2023, Pearce had 27 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one interception in 13 games. The star pass rusher will be crucial to the Volunteers’ success in 2024 as he looks set to improve again this upcoming season.

    Miss any action from the top college QB Rankings during the 2023 football season? Want to track all the movement with the college football transfer portal? College Football Network has you covered with that and more!


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