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2019 Spring Position Preview: Wide Receivers

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Up next is a look at the Vols’ wide receivers. You can read our preview of the Vols’ tight ends here.

Seniors: Jauan Jennings (RS), Marquez Callaway, Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson

Juniors: Josh Palmer, Jordan Murphy, Deangelo Gibbs

Sophomores: Maleik Gray (RS), Jacquez Jones (RS)

Freshmen: Cedric Tillman (RS), Ramel Keyton

The most important addition at receiver this offseason was Tee Martin returning home to coach the position.

Martin returns to his alma mater to coach wide receivers, serve as an assistant head coach, and be the passing game coordinator. The former national championship-winning quarterback makes his way to Knoxville following a seven-year stint with USC.

While at USC, Martin coached 10 NFL Draft selections, including the likes of Juju Smith-Schuster, Nelson Aghlor, Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, and Sam Darnold. As an assistant at Kentucky, Martin coached standout Randall Cobb.

As good of a coach as Martin is on the field, he’s as good – or better – a recruiter off the field. In 2016, Martin was tabbed the 247Sports National Recruiter of the Year. The following year in 2017, he was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, the award given annually to the top assistant coach in college football.

If you took the Tennessee ties away, Martin would still be a phenomenal hire for Jeremy Pruitt. He recruits at a high level, and he develops receivers at an elite level. Because Martin arrived in January with the 2019 signing class practically done, his ability to recruit was put on hold. With spring practice beginning on Thursday, his coaching will be on full display.

Martin will have plenty to work with this spring as the Vols return all of its production from the receiver position. Tennessee’s top three pass catchers – Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer – are back from a season ago. The trio combined to catch 60 passes for 1,514 yards and seven touchdowns.

This spring will be business as usual for the senior duo of Jennings and Callaway. For Palmer, this is a big spring of refining the details of his craft. He has all the tools to be Tennessee’s best wide receiver but needs a little more edge to him. If he can find that with Martin at the helm and with Jennings emerging as a leader of the offense, Tennessee will have one of the best trios of wide receivers in the league.

Past Jennings, Callaway and Palmer, UT’s depth seems to be in good shape. Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson, and Jordan Murphy are all capable of being productive and have played a lot of football.

Johnson, who is now a senior, led Tennessee in receiving during his sophomore campaign but took a step back last season. In 2017, he caught 37 passes, and in 2018, he caught 14 balls. As for Byrd, who is also now a senior, he only caught one pass and primarily served as a blocker.

Murphy has the most potential out of the two-deep and is the most likely to improve the greatest with Martin at the helm. That is, if he can remain focused on the task at hand. The rising junior played in 10 games last season and flashed big play potential on multiple occasions. Murphy had 11 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown last season.

The three X-factors for the wide receiver room are Deangelo Gibbs, Ramel Keyton, and Cedric Tillman.

Gibbs, who transferred from Georgia where he played defensive back, is waiting to hear from the NCAA if he’ll be able to play immediately. It may benefit him to sit out a year as he switches positions, but Gibbs’ speed would be a big boost to a receiver room full of possession receivers. He hasn’t played receiver since high school, but he has a lot of potential there.

As for Tillman, he was an intriguing addition to the class of 2018 out of Las Vegas late in the recruiting cycle. He had a nice fall camp as a freshman, but he hit a wall early on and tapered off. As a result, he played in just four games and redshirted.

In this year’s recruiting cycle, Pruitt and Martin brought in just two receivers. Four-star Ramel Keyton and three-star Jerrod Means are the newest additions to the Vols’ wideouts. Means won’t arrive until the summer, but Keyton is an early-enrollee. At 6-foot-3, Keyton has the potential to be a big-time receiver for the Vols down the road. His pure athleticism could even allow him to find the field early on, but with no clear path for playing time right now, he’s a candidate to play in just four games and redshirt in his first year on campus.

Heading into spring practices, the receiver room is the deepest on the team. With Martin leading the way, the group should be poised for a big season once the spring comes to a conclusion.

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