Was Washington's Michael Penix a Tennessee commit? Why Heisman finalist never played for Vols

Michael Penix Jr. has been one of the most electrifying players in college football during the 2023 college football season as the maestro of a dynamic, high-scoring Washington offense that regularly stretches the field with deep passes to one of the country’s best groups of wide receivers.
After throwing for an FBS-leading 4,218 yards and leading Washington to an undefeated record and a berth in the College Football Playoff, Penix is among the four finalists who has made the trip to New York for Saturday’s Heisman Trophy ceremony.
For the past two years, following his transfer from Indiana, Penix has excelled for Washington, passing for 64 touchdowns for a Huskies program that has gone 24-2 during that stretch. His career very nearly didn’t work out this way, though. In fact, Penix was once set to play for another Power Five program with a waterfront stadium and a famed sailgating scene.
Six years before he arrived at the precipice of the most revered individual award in college football, Penix was committed to play at Tennessee, where he, the coaching staff and the school’s fans hoped he could lead the Vols back to SEC and national glory.
It was a short-lived union, however, with Penix decommitting after a turbulent period in the Tennessee program in which it experienced a coaching transition. While both parties have found success apart, they could have quite conceivably achieved it together.
Why didn’t Penix end up in Knoxville? How did he commit to the Vols only to back out of that verbal pledge several months later?Here’s everything you need to know about Penix’s brief run as a Tennessee commit, and how it came apart:
Michael Penix Tennessee commitment
Coming out of Tampa Bay Tech in Tampa, Florida, Penix wasn’t the kind of ballyhooed recruit many top college quarterbacks are in high school.
The 6-2 Penix was rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports’ Composite ranking and was the No. 21 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class (behind, among others, Michigan commit and future Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III).
While attending a Vols camp in Knoxville in June 2016, however, he caught the eye of then-Vols coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Impressed with what they saw, they offered Penix a scholarship.
Though it wasn’t with the state’s flagship university, Penix had familial ties to the state: His father, Michael Penix Sr., was a record-setting running back at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville in the 1990s, while his mother, Takisha, was on the school’s track and field team. His younger brother, Mekhi, is currently a wide receiver for Tennessee Tech.
At the camp and in the days the days that followed, Penix didn’t immediately commit to the Vols. But the offer opened up a relationship and dialogue between the two sides. It didn’t take long for the interest to become mutual.
Nearly a full year later, in April 2017, Penix took an unofficial visit to Tennessee for the Vols’ spring game. On that trip, he saw all he needed to see. Despite overtures from other programs — Oregon, Arizona and Rutgers were among those that had offered him scholarships at that point — Penix committed to Tennessee.
Michael Penix Tennessee decommitment
The arrangement between Penix and Tennessee appeared well-positioned to work.
The Vols were getting a promising young quarterback with room to grow, while Penix was getting the opportunity to play for a storied SEC program with a coach who led Tennessee to back-to-back seasons with at least nine wins in 2015-16, something it hadn’t done in nearly a decade, in 2006-07.
The promise of that partnership wouldn’t last long. After being ranked No. 24 in the preseason Coaches Poll, the Vols stumbled to a 4-8 record. Ten games into the ill-fated season, Jones was fired.
A series of well-chronicled incidents followed — Greg Schiano being hired and then un-hired after a fan revolt and athletic director John Currie being ousted — but throughout that turmoil and uncertainty, Penix remained committed. After former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer took over as athletic director, he called Penix to assure him his scholarship still stood.
When Jeremy Pruitt was hired as Jones’ replacement, the former Alabama defensive coordinator made a similar call to Penix, but circumstances quickly changed. Days later, Pruitt hired Tyson Helton as his offensive coordinator. Penix had played in a spread offense in high school, but the skill set that came with that didn’t fit with the scheme Helton wanted to install.
Penix’s official visit to the school was pushed back to the week before National Signing Day, giving Penix and his family pause and prompting them to arrange visits to South Florida and Indiana. In mid-December, as his parents were planning for Penix’s official visit to Knoxville, they were informed that Penix’s scholarship offer had been pulled.
"It was crazy,” Penix told ESPN in October 2023. “The new coach comes in and you're like, 'OK, I'm about to sign in a couple weeks,' and you don't hear anything from the coaching staff.”
In a post on social media on Dec. 13, 2017, Penix announced he was decommitting from Tennessee. In his note, Penix said that after conversations with the Vols’ new coaching staff “it seems that’s not the place that I’m being wanted.”
For those closest to Penix, the move stung.
"We felt that if the AD and the head coach of Tennessee honored [Penix's] scholarship, then who was the OC to come and snatch it away?" Takisha Penix told bigcountypreps.com in 2017. "Michael posted his decommitment from Tennessee making sure the fans knew that it was not his choice."
"It should be the poster story for the ugly side of recruiting that not everybody knows about," Tampa Bay Tech coach Jayson Roberts said to 247Sports in Nov. 2023. "He was a victim of the coaching carousel. … I felt so bad for him. He'd done everything the right way."
Helton stayed only one season in Knoxville, getting hired as Western Kentucky's head coach following the 2018 season. He has remained with the Hilltoppers since his hiring, leading them to four winning seasons in five years, including three seasons with 9-5 records.
Michael Penix Tennessee decommitment aftermath
In his decommitment announcement, Penix noted that he still planned to sign on Dec. 20 with a “college that was really meant for me.”
He did just that. Exactly one week after backing away from his pledge to Tennessee, Penix committed to and signed with Indiana.
Once with the Hoosiers, he shined. After playing limited snaps as a freshman in 2018 and after an injury-plagued 2019 season, Penix became a national name in 2020 as he led Indiana to a 6-2 record in a pandemic-shortened season. For the Hoosiers, who rose as high as No. 7 in the Coaches Poll, it was their best win percentage in a season since 1967. Penix played a pivotal role in those accomplishments and was named to the all-Big Ten second team.
After injuries once again kept him off the field for several games, Penix transferred from Indiana after the 2021 season and ended up at Washington, where he reunited with Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer, who was his offensive coordinator with the Hoosiers in 2019.
Tennessee, meanwhile, brought in quarterback J.T. Shrout, a three-star recruit from California, for its 2018 recruiting class. Shrout attempted just 69 total passes in his four years with the Vols before transferring to Colorado after the 2021 season. He spent the 2023 season as a backup at Arkansas State, where he played for, oddly enough, Butch Jones.
Tennessee struggled offensively throughout Pruitt’s tumultuous three-year tenure and never finished higher than 97th in points per game. He was fired for cause in January 2021 after an internal investigation by the university uncovered a slew of potential NCAA violations.

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