Tennessee’s wide receiver group is arguably the most experienced unit on the Vols’ roster this season. And they have a new coach heading up the position.
Former national title-winning Vol quarterback Tee Martin has returned to Knoxville to coach the Vols’ wide receivers for the 2019 season. His official title is Tennessee’s assistant head coach, passing game coordinator, and wide receivers coach, but almost all the talk on Thursday was about UT’s wideouts.
Martin met with the media on Thursday afternoon to discuss what he saw from his unit in the spring, how they developed over the summer, and what he’s expecting from them in the fall. When asked which receivers specifically he’s looking forward to seeing most in practices this fall, Martin didn’t hesitate.
“The guy who I’m really excited about is Josh Palmer,” Martin stated. “He had a really good spring, and Jordan Murphy had a really good spring. Ramel (Keyton) is coming. He has the talent and is really smart. He just hasn’t played yet, so we’ll see how he comes along.”
Palmer was a bit of a breakout player for the Vols in 2018. As a sophomore, Palmer led the SEC in yards per catch and was fifth in the entire FBS with a 21.0 yard per reception average. He finished his second year at UT with 23 catches for 484 yards and two touchdowns. He also added a rushing touchdown to go along with his 27 rushing yards on five attempts.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound wideout from Canada showed versatility and the ability to create big plays in Tennessee’s offense last season. Martin hopes that trend continues into his junior season.
But Palmer isn’t the only receiver Martin is excited about.
Martin also pointed out Jordan Murphy, another rising junior in Tennessee’s receiving corps. Last season, Murphy played in 10 games and earned one start for the Vols. He showed plenty of potential on the field, catching 11 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, and he ripped off a 59-yard run against Kentucky that showed off his explosiveness. He also had a 50-yard catch that went for his lone touchdown of the season when he caught a pass and sprinted to the end zone against ETSU.
According to Martin, Murphy has improved his game since his sophomore season and has proven to be more than just a quick receiver.
“He’s a really intelligent football player and a talented route runner,” Martin said of Murphy. “You can tell he really loves the game. I just want to see him play more. I haven’t seen a lot of his film from over the years, but I think he has a lot of ability.”
But arguably the greatest compliment Martin paid any of his receivers on Thursday went to senior Marquez Callaway.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound wideout from Warner Robins, Georgia led the Vols in receptions and receiving yards last season, hauling in 37 catches for 592 yards and two touchdowns. But Callaway has apparently put in a lot of work this offseason to improve his speed and explosiveness, and Martin has taken note.
“Marquez has a skill set that is very similar, to me, like JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was very intelligent,” Martin said. “He did everything on special teams. He can do anything on offense. He can play inside and outside. He’ll play hurt. Anything you ask the young man to do. I didn’t know Marquez when I came here, but he was always eager to jump in and do whatever you ask him to do, and he loves the game.
“This is his last year, and he ran a 4.40 flat (40-yard dash) over the summer. He’s gotten faster since a season ago, and that’s something I challenged this group with.”
Martin coached Smith-Schuster while at USC and helped develop him into a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. While at USC, Smith-Schuster was voted a First-Team All-Pac-12 receiver in 2015 and finished with 3,092 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns on 213 career receptions. Martin thinks Callaway is comparable to the former USC standout because of his work ethic and his ability both.
As for the added speed, that’s a new weapon in Callaway’s arsenal.
Callaway was always quick, but that straight line speed is a new addition to his game. And according to Martin, he thinks Callaway could be one of the best wide receivers in the entire SEC this season.
“I think he has the potential to be one of the best receivers in the SEC, and I’m not just saying that because he’s here at Tennessee,” Martin said of Callaway. “His body of work to this point speaks for itself. If he just continues to take his game to the next level, I think he could be one of those early round guys.”
Tennessee hasn’t had a wide receiver taken in the NFL Draft since Josh Malone was drafted No. 128 overall in the fourth round by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft. Before Malone, Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter were the last Vol wideouts to be drafted into the NFL, and those two are the last Tennessee receivers to be “early round guys” as Martin put it. Patterson was taken in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, and Hunter was drafted early in the second round by the Tennessee Titans in the same draft.
The University of Tennessee was once known as “Wide Receiver U” back in the 1990s and early 2000s because of all the wide receiver talent the school produced. It’s been a while since Tennessee has consistently put out talented wideouts in either the college game or the NFL, but Tee Martin is positive this group of receivers offers plenty of promise and potential heading into 2019.