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 and tight ends.
Seniors: Velus Jones (RS), Austin Pope (RS), Princeton Fant (RS)
Juniors: Jacob Warren (RS), Cedric Tillman, Ramel Keyton, Kenney Solomon
Sophomores: Jalin Hyatt, Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Holliday, Jimmy Calloway, Andison Coby (early enrollee), Hunter Salmon (RS)
Freshmen: Walker Merrill (early enrollee), Miles Campbell (early enrollee)
Departures: Josh Palmer (graduation), Brandon Johnson (transfer portal), Sean Brown (transfer portal)
Who takes over as WR1?
The Jauan Jennings-Marquez Callaway-Josh Palmer era is officially over in Tennessee’s wide receiver room. A year after Jennings and Callaway moved on to the NFL, Palmer wrapped up a solid 2020 campaign and is set to join them in the league here soon. That makes finding a new top receiver target the No. 1 priority this spring for new Vols wide receivers coach Kodi Burns.
Burns, who arrives in Knoxville after five seasons as Auburn’s wide receivers coach, has two good options to step up and be Tennessee’s leading-receiver. Senior Velus Jones returns for a second season on Rocky Top after taking advantage of the free year of eligibility the NCAA granted due to COVID-19. Jones played in all 10 games and made six starts last year. He ranked third on the team in receptions (22) and receiving yards (280) while finishing second on the team in receiving touchdowns (three). Jones really got going towards the end of the season, making 13 of his 22 catches over the final four games.
Rising sophomore Jalin Hyatt is the other option to be Tennessee’s top target at receiver. Jones may be very versatile, but there isn’t a receiver in the group that is more dangerous than Hyatt. As a true freshman last season, his speed was on full display as he finished as one of the top freshman receivers in the SEC with 20 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
Regardless of who proves to be the top target, both Jones and Hyatt have the ability to be great receivers in this league and should flourish in Josh Heupel’s offense. After all, Jones did recently describe the new offense as a “wide receiver’s dream.”
Can Tennessee establish depth?
After establishing who the top targets are going to be, the question becomes whether or not Burns can build depth behind Jones and Hyatt. The Vols will also need to establish a No. 3 receiver. Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway are the first names that come to mind in that regard.
Wideman, Holiday and Calloway were all talked about as much as Hyatt during fall camp last year under the former regime. But Wideman, Holiday and Calloway never saw the field like Hyatt did for whatever reason. Calloway caught two passes, Wideman caught one and Holiday only touched the ball on one rushing attempt. There’s no question that the three have the talent to play at this level. It would be a huge development for Heupel’s offense in year one if the coaching staff can figure out how to get them going.
Veterans Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton also have an opportunity to crack the rotation. Tillman has caught eight passes in 25 career games, while Keyton has caught 13 passes in 19 appearances. Keyton, a former four-star, spent the end of last season away from the team due to academics. He has the talent to excel, but he needs to make sure his business off the field is handled first.
New offense … new tight ends?
The tight end position was not as prevalent in Jim Chaney’s offense as many expected it to be. In fact, the tight ends were mostly irrelevant last season. A good spring from the tight ends is critical in establishing what their role within the offense can be this fall.
Tennessee’s tight ends will be a mixture of Austin Pope, Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren. Pope has played the most out of the three, having played in 33 career games and making 14 starts. He entered the transfer portal at the end of last season, but withdrew from the portal as he wanted to remain with his hometown team. Pope signed as a pass-catching tight end, but was forced to bulk up under Jeremy Pruitt and be more of a blocking tight end. Heupel’s offense should fit more of Pope’s natural skillset.
Warren’s career at Tennessee has been very similar to Pope’s. He signed out of Farragut High School as a pass-catching tight end, but was forced to bulk up and be more a blocking tight end. Warren played in 10 games and made five starts this season. He’s only made seven career catches but that should go up under Heupel.
Fant has spent his career bouncing from position to position. Whether it be at running back or tight end, Fant has played in 20 games and made three starts. He played in all 10 games last year and made three starts, totaling 12 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. Fant has the athleticism to be a weapon within the offense.
Tennessee has three newcomers amongst the wide receivers and tight ends. Andison Coby signed with the Vols out of Northeast Mississippi Community College and has already generated some buzz. The sophomore is on pace to factor into the rotation early in his Vol career.
True freshman Walker Merrill, who enrolled early after signing with the Vols out of Brentwood High School in the mid-state, is also on track for early playing time. Merrill has impressed with his athleticism, competitiveness and ability to run routes. He was ranked as a four-star by 247Sports and the 58th-best receiver in the country.
At tight end, Miles Campbell is the lone newcomer. Campbell has the size and athleticism to contribute early, which would be a big boost to a tight ends room that needs help. The 6-foot-1, 245 lbs. tight end signed early with the Vols as a three-star out of South Paulding High School in Douglasville, Georgia.