Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. After taking a look at the running back position, we take a look at the Vols’ wide receivers next.
Seniors: Josh Palmer, Brandon Jonson (RS), Velus Jones Jr. (RS),
Juniors: Deangelo Gibbs (RS)
Sophomores: Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman (RS), Miles Jones (RS), Isaiah Montgomery,
Freshmen: Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, Jimmy Holliday, Dee Beckwith, Jalin Hyatt
Replacing a legend
Tennessee wide receivers coach Tee Martin has as tough a job as any coach on staff heading into the 2020 season. Martin is charged with replacing one of the most productive wide receivers in program history in Jauan Jennings. Martin must also replace Marquez Callaway, who was a very productive receiver for the Vols over the last three seasons.
Jennings, a seventh round draft pick to the San Francisco 49ers, finished his UT career fifth all-time in receptions (146), fourth in receiving yards (2,153) and tied-for-fifth in touchdown receptions (18). He played in 50 career games, making 30 starts, and threw two career touchdown passes, while even picking up an interception on defense.
Callaway leaves Tennessee with 92 receptions for 1,646 yards (16th-most in program history) and 13 touchdowns. Callaway also leaves a big hole on punt return, as he was one of the most accomplished punt returners in school history. His career 13.6 punt return average ranks fourth in school history and his three punt return touchdowns are second all-time.
Callaway and Jennings combined for 89 catches, 1,604 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, in addition to 28 of Tennessee’s 48 completions of 20-plus yards. The two accounted for 56 percent of the team’s receiving yardage and 74 percent of the receiving touchdowns. If you add in starting tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson (268 yards, one score) and reserve wide receiver Tyler Byrd (66 yards, one touchdown) who both graduated, Martin and the Vols must replace nearly 70 percent of its receiving production in 2019 — and 16 of 19 touchdowns.
Time to shine
With the departures of Jennings and Callaway, it’s Josh Palmer’s turn to step up and be the guy in the wide receiver room. Jennings, Callaway and Palmer have formed one of the better trio of wide receivers in the SEC over the last two seasons, but Palmer is the only holdover.
Palmer has often been the forgotten man of the trio despite flashing elite potential at times. He finished second on the Vols with 34 receptions as a junior last year to go along with 457 receiving yards and one touchdown. Palmer appeared in all 13 games and made 11 starts.
The native of Canada has appeared in 37 games over the course of his career with 24 starts. Palmer has caught 66 passes for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns over the last three seasons and also has one rushing score to his credit. 46 of his 66 catches have gone for a first down and he owns 10 career catches of 25 or more yards.
Palmer has plenty of talent to be a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver in the SEC. He also has the tools to be the leader in the room following the departures of Jennings and Callaway. Those inside the program believe Palmer will have a big year, but he’s also going to need help.
Who steps up next to Palmer?
Deangelo Gibbs is the x-factor in the wide receiver room. The Georgia transfer has never played wide receiver in college, as he played defensive back in Athens before transferring to Tennessee before the start of the 2019 season. Gibbs spent the year learning the position and consistently made plays against the first team defense as a scout team receiver.
Gibbs could be the best receiver on the roster by the time the 2020 season comes to an end, but he has to go out there and prove that he can play at a high level consistently — something he failed to do as a Bulldog.
With Gibbs expected to be as big of a piece as Palmer, Martin has other options to utilize as well. Fifth-year senior Brandon Johnson is back after redshirting last season in an effort to see more playing time in 2020. Johnson led the Vols in receiving back in 2017 and is a reliable option.
Velus Jones Jr. will get the first crack at starting in the slot after transferring from USC over the offseason as a graduate transfer. Jones is known more for his elite ability as a kick returner, however. He’ll have to prove his worth as a reliable wide receiver option in his final year of college football.
Tennessee is hoping that Ramel Keyton can take a big step forward as a true sophomore following a freshman season in which he appeared in 12 games as a reserve receiver, flashing big play potential along the way. He finished with only four catches for 104 yards (26.0 yards per catch), but had two key catches for 60 yards against Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. He also had a key 41-yard reception in the Vols’ win over Mississippi State.
With so much production lost at the wide receiver position, and players returning who still have something to prove, each of Tennessee’s five wide receiver signees will have a great opportunity to contribute early. Signing five wide receivers would suggest that two, maybe even three, would redshirt as a true freshman. But based off the buzz each player has generated over the offseason, it may not be the case.
The five wide receiver signees consist of four-star Malachi Wideman, four-star Jalin Hyatt, four-star Jimmy Calloway, three-star athlete Dee Beckwith and three-star athlete Jimmy Holiday. Each possess one particular trait that could lead to them contributing early. Hyatt, Holiday and Calloway possess elite speed, an area of the wide receiver room that has been lacking over the last couple of season. Wideman possesses elite leaping ability, which could prove valuable in the red zone, while Beckwith has the versatility to line up at any receiver position, h-back or even on the line as a tight end.