Dec. 29—Tennessee's history with the Music City Bowl consists of three journeys, two with defensive lineman Ja'Quain Blakely on the roster and one without.
Blakely wasn't with the Volunteers in 2010, when Derek Dooley's one and only bowl trip was a double-overtime loss to North Carolina in Nashville, but the sixth-year senior redshirted in 2016, when the Vols of Butch Jones beat Nebraska 38-24 inside Nissan Stadium. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder from Moultrie, Georgia, is Tennessee's lone 2016 signee still on the roster, so his career will come full circle Thursday afternoon when the Vols face Purdue.
"It's very different," Blakely told reporters following Tuesday afternoon's practice at Vanderbilt. "It's been fun just knowing that I'm out with the guys just enjoying my teammates. It's the last hurrah, so I'm just enjoying my teammates in Nashville. There's no better place to be."
Blakely, who is undersized as an NFL prospect, used the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that was implemented last year with the outbreak of the coronavirus. He signed with the likes of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, receiver Marquez Callaway, linebacker Daniel Bituli and safety Nigel Warrior and persevered through the calamitous endings of the Jones and Jeremy Pruitt eras.
Tight end Austin Pope almost accompanied Blakely to a second Music City Bowl but endured multiple back surgeries and opted to retire just before preseason camp this past summer.
Blakely had appeared in 37 career games entering this season but had not done much, compiling 15 tackles and two tackles for loss. He has saved his best for last, racking up 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and three pass breakups.
When fellow defensive lineman and 2017 signee Matthew Butler was asked Tuesday about how long Blakely has been with the Vols, he responded, "It's hard to believe I've been in this program this long."
Vols fifth-year senior safety Theo Jackson played at Nashville's Overton High School and has been excited about this postseason locale since it was announced at the beginning of the month.
Jackson said Tuesday that he will have at least 17 friends and family members in attendance.
"I've had more requests, but I have to turn down some," Jackson said. "I've told some that they may have to buy a ticket, and they see the price and kind of get mad at me for some odd reason."
With Tuesday night's scheduled Holiday Bowl between N.C. State and UCLA becoming the latest postseason contest to get canceled due to COVID-19-related issues, Vols players are hoping Thursday's game can simply take place.
"You work so hard for this, and it's something I'm excited for and ready to get into," Blakely said. "To know at any given day it can be canceled is kind of sketchy and scary."
Said Jackson: "It comes with us being in a pandemic, and I'm prepared for it, but I'm hoping that it doesn't."
Tennessee senior safety Trevon Flowers went through senior day ceremonies before the Nov. 27 win over Vanderbilt but could decide to return. Flowers said Tuesday that he has received feedback from the NFL.
"I'll probably make my decision within the week," Flowers said.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.