In a week with trips to New York City and Atlanta, the changes in Cedric Tillman’s life over the last year were never as clear as they were at SEC Media Days.
Tillman was unknown outside of the Volunteer State in July of 2021. Entering his redshirt junior season, Tillman totaled eight career catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
A year after becoming Tennessee’s first 1,000 yard receiver in a decade, Tillman is a household name. A preseason Second Team All-SEC selection and member of the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, Tillman is a household name across the southeast.
The noise Tillman hears entering his final collegiate campaign is far different than it was a season ago, but that doesn’t change his approach.
“For me it’s the same,” Tillman said about this offseason compared to the last. “Staying level headed, not getting caught up in the hype. Having that same mentality as last year which is playing hard. I think we played every game hard no matter what the score was. So just playing hard and representing that T well.”
Even in a new — receiver friendly — offense under first year coach Josh Heupel, Tillman didn’t hit the ground running. The Las Vegas native totaled just six catches for 78 yards in September before exploding for 635 yards and eight touchdowns in November and the Music City Bowl.
Tillman is keeping that progress in mind as he enters a season as a clear No. 1 target that will draw bountiful attention from opposing defenses.
“You just have to compete,” Tillman said. “Let the numbers take care of themselves. The first four games or whatever it was, I didn’t have the best numbers and the last six or seven games— that’s when I kind of took off. Not looking so much at the numbers. Just playing hard and the numbers will come.”
That second half explosion provides excitement for what Tillman can do in a full season with complete understanding of Heupel’s offense. That was a part of Heupel’s pitch and a major reason why Tillman spurned the NFL Draft for one final season in Knoxville.
“I believe his best football is still ahead of him,” Heupel said following the regular season finale win over Vanderbilt. “He’s a guy that from the moment we’ve gotten here he’s just been super consistent in who he is and how he approaches the day, how he works in the weight room. He has to spend as much time as anybody watching extra film on what we’ve done offensively, and what you have to do. Because of his work habits, he constantly gets better. First five days of spring ball to the second five days, you can see him get better. … Guy’s got chance to do some really special things and help this program win.”
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With Tillman’s new come notoriety comes doubters and people nitpicking his game. Tillman landed on the preseason Second Team behind a pair of receivers with lesser numbers— including Alabama’s Jermaine Burton who recorded just 497 yards and five touchdowns last season at Georgia.
Tillman retweeted a top 10 national receivers list that excluded him earlier this offseason.
While the slights drive the former undervalued recruit, Tillman is keeping the motivation internal entering the season.
“I’ll just keep it to myself,” Tillman said. “There’s some things that if we watch the tape instead of looking at a PFF grade or something you’ll be like ‘I don’t know if that’s true.’ It comes with it.”
From the nation’s 1,677th rated recruit to traveling to New York City for NIL opportunities, Tillman’s life has changed radically in the last year. The fifth-year Vol is blocking out the subsequent noise to position his life for another radical change and jump to professional football in the next year.
“Those 1,000 guys ahead of me— I don’t know what they’re doing now.”