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2020 Spring Position Preview: Wide Receiver

Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Our most recent piece looked at Tennessee’s tight ends. Up next is a look at the Vols’ wide receivers.

Seniors: Brandon Johnson (RS), Velus Jones Jr. (RS), Josh Palmer

Juniors: Deangelo Gibbs (RS)

Sophomores: Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman

Freshmen: Isaiah Montgomery (RS)

Tennessee loses a ton of production from their wide receiver group from the 2019 season, and this unit will be vastly different this spring than they were in the fall of last year.

Gone are Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, and Tyler Byrd has also graduated. The Vols lose a total of 1,670 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns from last year with those three departures, and Tennessee’s receiving group will only have one returning “starter” from last season in Josh Palmer.

Luckily for Tennessee, senior Brandon Johnson elected to redshirt last season in order to help boost the depth at the unit in 2020, and the Vols also have a promising young receiver in Ramel Keyton and a high-upside option in Deangelo Gibbs. The Vols also brought in grad transfer receiver Velus Jones Jr. from USC to help with the depth. But Tennessee’s receiving corps has two big pairs of shoes to fill, and they have a lot of things to figure out starting this spring.

Palmer is easily the most experienced and proven receiver returning to Tennessee in 2020, and he’s in line to be the top target in the group. Last season, Palmer finished with a career-high 34 catches for 457 yards and a touchdown, and he came on strong to finish the season, totaling 16 receptions for 247 yards and his lone score in UT’s final four games.

Consistency and living up to his potential has been a struggle for Palmer, but he’s shown flashes of great play-making ability at times. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound wideout enters this season with 1,000 career receiving yards and with the pressure of being Tennessee’s likely No. 1 target.

But who can take the pressure off of Palmer?

Vol fans will be immensely interested in how Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs performs this spring. Gibbs played as a defensive back for the Bulldogs, but he moved over to offense for Tennessee once the Vols found out he wouldn’t be eligible to play in 2019. He used his redshirt year to get reacquainted with a position he hadn’t played since high school, and word is that he impressed coaches a lot against the scout team all throughout the fall.

Performing well against the scout team is one thing, though. This spring will be big for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound athlete, and he could really carve out a spot for himself with a strong set of practices.

Aside from Palmer, Brandon Johnson is the most experienced returning wideout for the Vols, but his production has dipped considerably since a solid sophomore campaign in 2017. Johnson led UT in catches as a sophomore, hauling in 37 receptions for 482 yards and a touchdown. In 16 games since then, Johnson has caught just 16 balls for 163 yards, including just two catches for 31 yards in four games last year.

Johnson made the selfless decision to redshirt last season so he could return for a fifth year and help out UT’s young receiving corps this season. Can he regain some of the mojo he had in 2017 and be a productive pass catcher? Or will the Vols’ younger receivers pass him up?

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Velus Jones Jr. has the opportunity to make an instant impact as a grad transfer from USC. With the Trojans, Jones was used primarily as a kick-off returner, but he showed some promise under former USC offensive coordinator and current Tennessee wide receivers coach Tee Martin. His best year at USC came under Martin’s tutelage, as he caught 24 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown in 2018.

But aside from that year, Jones has struggled to be relevant in the passing game, grabbing a combined 12 passes for 81 yards in his two other seasons with the Trojans.

Jones also ran for a touchdown and returned a kick for a touchdown at USC, and he averaged 24 yards a kick return on 81 returns. If nothing else, Jones should provide an actual threat as a kick returner for the Vols, but he’ll also look to factor in as a receiver.

Both Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman have shown signs of promise in their young Tennessee careers, but both are going to be counted on in much bigger roles this season. And their growth this spring will be vital to UT’s success in the passing game this fall.

Keyton made some nice plays in a limited role as a true freshman last season, catching four passes for 104 yards. The former four-star prospect has all the opportunity in the world to grab a starting spot this spring, and he arguably has the highest ceiling of any of Tennessee’s wideouts on the roster currently. As for Tillman, the big-bodied wideout has yet to break through, catching four passes for 60 yards and a score last season. But at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, he brings an element to the Vols’ receiving room that no other wideout on the roster does.

Isaiah Montgomery, a former walk-on from East Point, Georgia, earned a scholarship late in the 2019 season and redshirted in his freshman season. It’ll be interesting to see if Montgomery can make some noise this spring, especially with so much playing time up for grabs.

Tennessee’s receiver group is fairly small this spring, but their numbers will be bolstered significantly in the summer and fall. The Vols will be welcoming in Malachi Wideman, Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Calloway, and Dee Beckwith from their 2020 signing class after the spring. Those four freshmen all have an opportunity for early playing time, and Hyatt and Wideman especially bring some dynamic play-making ability to UT’s receiving room.

The Vols also bring in Nebraska transfer receiver Miles Jones to the roster as a walk-on, but it remains to be seen if he will be eligible for the 2020 season.

Tennessee has a lot of unknowns at receiver heading into the spring, but there’s also a lot of potential with the group. March and April will go a long way to figuring out who will be relied upon during the 2020 season.

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