Tennessee’s receivers tallied just 1,449 receiving yards in the shortened 2020 season. With poor quarterback play, the Vols’ wide outs averaged an abysmal 145 yards per game.
But as Tennessee gets ready to kick-off the Josh Heupel era in less than three weeks, there’s as much excitement around the potential of Tennessee’s receivers as any other position group.
That confidence comes in large part from the new head coach. Heupel is known for his offense and specifically the success of receivers in the down field passing game.
A season ago at UCF, Heupel’s top two receivers recorded over 900 yards. In Heupel’s three years at Central Florida the former quarterback had five 800 plus yard receivers and a pair of 1,000 yard receivers.
In the last three seasons at Tennessee, Jauan Jennings’ 969 yard 2019 season is the only receiving season over 700 yards.
Still, there’s talent at Tennessee’s receiver position. Two of the Vols’ top three receiving leaders are back including Jalin Hyatt who flashed as a freshman a season ago.
“I believe I’m a fast guy,” Hyatt said. “When he (Heupel) came in he pulled me aside and told me this is the offense for you. I’m just grateful for him to be here. I’m blessed.”
Hyatt tallied 276 yards and two touchdowns and impressed with his speed as a deep ball threat. The South Carolina native shined against Alabama, hauling in a pair of catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Under Heupel’s offense, Hyatt has primarily worked in the slot. The 6-foot sophomore believes that’s a spot he’ll shine.
“The reason I love slot is because you have open space,” Hyatt said. “You can get sound defenders and not only that sometimes you get cover one so you get one-on-one options and you— when I have man-to-man I love that.”
Also returning is redshirt-senior Velus Jones Jr. who tallied 280 yards and three touchdowns, closing the season strong.
Sophomore Jimmy Calloway has impressed this fall, the early returns on Mississippi State transfer Javonte Payton have been good and junior Cedric Tillman has impressed as a physical, redzone receiver. Tillman has particularly shined high, pointing the ball.
“We have playmakers all around,” Hyatt said. “Playmakers everywhere and we’re fast. At the same time we have guys that are physical and can catch the ball. This is probably the best receiving core I’ve seen so far since being here. I’m excited. I’m excited to go out there with my brothers.”
The receiver room’s depth will be important as Tennessee wants to play at a high pace. The Vols will want at least six receivers playing each game and while there’s still questions about getting to that number Tennessee it seems much more realistic with players like Calloway and Tillman emerging.
“Really any rotation, any position, you want to be as deep as you can be,” receiver coach Kodi Burns said. “It’s clear that we run up-tempo offense, we play extremely fast. There’s not going to be a whole lot of time for substitutions. But you would like to be at least two-deep at every single position.”
“We catch people off guard,” Cedric Tillman said of the fast tempo. “It just works, honestly. As cliche as that sounds. It just seems like it’s been working for us. I’m excited. It’s something new, something I’ve never done before but I’m excited to see where it takes us.”
In the end, so much of Tennessee’s receiving success will come down to the play of whoever is starting at quarterback. That’s what’s haunted Tennessee’s passing game since Josh Dobbs graduated in 2016.
Still, Tennessee’s receiving core has jumped out at the start of camp, and they believe there are more good things to come this fall.