When it comes to evaluating wide receiver play at the University of Tennessee, few are better qualified than Jayson Swain. As a Vol, Swain caught 126 passes for 1,721 yards and 10 touchdowns in his four years with Tennessee from 2003-06. Though he hasn’t played for the Vols in over a decade, he’s still sixth in program history in career receptions and 13th in career receiving yards.
Swain now hosts a morning sports radio show in Knoxville, The Swain Event. And on his show on Monday, he shared his thoughts on Tennessee’s current wide receiver group as they head into their last week of fall camp.
And according to Swain, Tennessee’s best receiver during the first two-plus weeks of fall camp has been sophomore Josh Palmer.
“The best wide receiver, in my opinion, this fall camp…it is not Jauan Jennings, not Marquez Callaway, it’s Josh Palmer,” Swain stated during Monday’s Swain Event show. “He’s been the most consistent wide receiver. He’s been the best wide receiver in this fall camp.”
The sophomore receiver played in all 12 of Tennessee’s games last season and made six starts as a true freshman. Even as a true freshman, Swain saw the raw potential that Palmer had.
“When I saw him last year working as a freshman, I was standing next to Fred White or somebody, and I was like ‘Man, he looks physically developed,'” Swain continued. “He looked like he was ready to play physically. Now, mentally, he had just started to play the position two or three years before. So he was just starting to learn how to play the position.”
The 6-foot-2, 201-pound receiver started out catching at least one pass in the Vols’ first five games of the season last year. But then he, along with the rest of Tennessee’s offense, faded down the stretch. He finished his freshman campaign with just nine catches for 98 yards.
Swain believes Palmer hit a wall during his freshman year, and it started with the Florida game when he dropped a touchdown in the red zone.
“We saw him fade away after the Florida game,” Swain said. “We saw him mentally hit a wall that, while it wasn’t his fault for the play-calling, it was his fault that he didn’t catch (the pass vs. Florida). That moment, I thought Palmer hit a wall, and he never was able to recover. And that’s part of being a freshman.”
But now with another year to learn the position and a completely new coaching staff to teach him, Palmer looks poised to be a much bigger contributor for the Vols this season. Swain even says that the true sophomore is making plays that more veteran receivers sometimes don’t make.
“Every time I go to practice, Josh Palmer is making a play on a 50/50 ball,” Swain said. “There was one practice where it’s a deep pass, and I didn’t think Josh was going to be able to get up to it at all. He beat the defensive back by a step, and the quarterback laid it out there to him. And Palmer, with a veteran move…to be able to take a peak, and then dig back and look back down to the ground and dig a little bit more, and then take another peak and relocate the football and catch it, that’s a different level of wide receiver.
“That’s a different level, and that’s what Josh Palmer did one day and made a fingertip 50-yard catch. And Palmer has been doing that the entire fall camp.”
According to Swain, not only is Palmer another year older and wiser, but he’s being taught “by who I think is one of the best receiver coaches, receiver teaches in college football” in David Johnson. Before being hired by Pruitt, Johnson coached at Memphis and helped turn Anthony Miller from a walk-on to an All-American receiver for the Tigers.
Now Johnson is coaching Tennessee’s receivers, and Swain likes the work he’s done developing Palmer so far.
That development and the results Palmer has shown thus far in fall camp is good news for a Tennessee receiving corps that has a lot of questions beyond the main three returning receivers. Vol fans know what kind of play-making ability Marquez Callaway brings to UT’s offense, and Brandon Johnson proved to be a reliable target last year as well. And as long as he remains healthy, Jauan Jennings should be a valuable asset in the passing game too.
But right now, Jennings is being eased along as he recovers from surgery he had earlier this year. And aside from Callaway and Johnson, there aren’t any proven receivers on the Vols’ roster. Palmer’s nine career catches are actually the fifth-most among UT’s entire receiving corps, trailing Jennings, Johnson, Callaway, and junior Tyler Byrd.
All that uncertainty makes it even more important that Palmer has begun to emerge as a consistent play-maker this fall.
“Palmer is a guy that we didn’t know had this play in him,” Swain explained. “So it’s good to see him this fall camp bring it out.”
But it’s not just Palmer who has stood out to Swain this fall. According to the former Vol receiver, fellow sophomore receiver Jordan Murphy has been another player who’s caught his eye among Tennessee’s pass catchers.
“Jordan Murphy has been almost as impressive as Palmer,” Swain said. “He’s been strong. You have a strong five right now.”
Murphy only caught one pass for 12 yards in seven games last year for the Vols, but he’s looked like one of the more consistent and competent receivers even during the open portions of practice that the media can attend. He’s worked his way into the main rotation at receiver, and Swain likes what he brings to Tennessee’s receiving corps along with Palmer.
There’s only a little less than two weeks till the Vols take on West Virginia to start the 2018 season, and Tennessee will need as many play-makers as they can get for that game and their SEC schedule this year. And according to Swain, Palmer and Murphy both may end up being surprise contributors in Tennessee’s passing game this fall.