Tennessee football’s top receiver this year was a two-star recruit coming out of high school. No, that’s not hyperbole, and it’s not an exaggeration.
He leads Tennessee’s receivers in receptions with 46, yards with 725, and is tied for the most touchdown catches on the team with six. In fact, just last week, he had 200 total receiving yards against the best defense in the country.
Let me reintroduce you to Cedric Tillman, Tennessee’s former two-star recruit turned SEC superstar.
Coming out of Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas, Tillman was a two-star recruit according to Rivals. Recruited by former Tennessee assistant Tyson Helton, Tillman chose Tennessee over three other scholarship offers: Hawaii, UNLV, and Weber State.
Tillman was officially enrolled in Tennessee in May of 2018, however, it took a while to get his career going. In fact, it essentially took an entire coaching staff change to get that ball rolling.
In his first three seasons at Tennessee, Tillman only collected eight receptions, with four being his previous season-high in 2019. On one hand, Tillman was on a team that was struggling offensively for years. On the other hand, though, Tillman was behind multiple future NFL wide receivers in Marquez Callaway, Joshua Palmer, and Jauan Jennings.
Even though most of his time was spent on the bench in his first few years, Tillman had some incredible receivers to learn from.
With the arrival of Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel and his staff this year, combined with the fact that all three of the receivers mentioned previously are now in the NFL, the table was set for Tillman to have a breakout year. While many have seen the success of Tennessee’s redshirt-junior during the season, it actually dates back all the way to the spring.
“To me, it really just dates back to when I first got here,” Heupel said about Tillman’s development on Monday. “That’s a guy that has been extremely focused on continuing to change his body, gain strength, development inside the strength and conditioning area. A guy that has probably spent as much or more time understanding what we’re doing. Really being diligent and watching film. Then you get into spring ball, his first five practices, consistent in his work ethic, but you saw growth from the first five to the second five to the third five.”
With a fresh start during spring ball, along with a new coaching staff, it was time for Tillman to become a playmaking receiver for Tennessee. Standing at 6-foot-3 with a weight of 215 pounds, Tillman was the guy that Tennessee needed for specific plays on the field. After weeks, months, and years of growing his craft and welcoming in different lessons and perspectives, Tillman started to gain confidence heading into this season.
“In that, he has gained a ton of confidence and belief that he can be a really good wide receiver at this level,” Heupel said on Monday. “Then you’ve seen him progress throughout the season because his work habits have consistently continued to grow.”
In the 2021 season, Tillman has been a starting wide receiver for the Vols each and every game. After accumulating just eight catches during his first three years in Knoxville, Tillman has a whopping 46 receptions, 725 yards, and six touchdowns this year alone. In fact, Tillman has the fifth most yards of any individual wide receiver in the SEC.
Tillman’s game last Saturday against Georgia, the best defense in the nation, was truly something special. The former two-star receiver had ten catches for 200 yards, marking career-bests in both categories.
“I say this to our football team a lot, the guys that put the most work into it are the guys that get the most out of it,” Heupel said on Monday. “It doesn’t always happen immediately when you want it, but man, it rings true over time. I think [Tillman’s] work and toughness and who he is has shown up in his season thus far.”
What makes Tillman even more special, though, is his ability to step up in big-time games and atmospheres, especially considering he had such little experience in that area prior to this season. Tillman’s four best games of the season have all come against ranked teams and some of the SEC’s best. Tillman had seven catches for 84 yards against Ole Miss, and then seven catches for 152 yards on the road against Alabama. The Tennessee wide-out then followed that up with six catches and 79 yards against Kentucky, and ten catches for 200 yards against Georgia. Not to mention, Tillman scored a touchdown in each of those four games.
On Monday afternoon, Tennessee wide receiver Ramel Keyton spoke to the media about the impact Tillman has on this Tennessee team. Not just in his statistical numbers, but in the way he inspires the players around him, showing what hard work and dedication can do for a player.
“Ced[ric Tillman], you know, he wasn’t as active last year but now he is,” Keyton said on Monday. “He’s just kept working, so yeah, that would inspire someone like me. It can inspire anybody, in any phase of the game. Stay there, keep working, and just be ready when your time comes.”
That time for Cedric Tillman has come, and the Tennessee wide receiver has made the absolute most of every opportunity.