Tennessee wide receiver Dont’e Thornton might just be putting it all together here in the back half of the season as the former transfer wideout started the Kentucky game as an outside receiver in the Vols’ offensive scheme for the first time this year.
This was a surprising move from the Vols’ coaching staff simply because it was Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod that had been receiving the bulk of the load at the outside spot in replacement of Bru McCoy. All in all, though, Thornton’s emergence as an outside receiver is something to certainly watch as an X-Factor moving forward.
Since arriving at Tennessee this past offseason, Thornton has had an uphill climb as he battled injuries and adjustments during the spring and the fall leading into the season.
“Dont’e’s growth and journey is a little bit different,” head coach Josh Heupel said on Monday. “I say that because he missed a majority of spring and training camp. He is still really early in the process of playing within what we do. I thought the other night, he was comfortable and was really good at the line scrimmage and down the football field. I believe we need him to continue to excel and play really good football here down the stretch.”
While playing out of the slot this season, Thornton hauled in seven passes for 89 yards over the course of his first six games of the season as he missed the South Carolina contest due to injury. While getting the start as the outside receiver on Saturday, though, Thornton caught three passes for 63 yards. The former Oregon transfer led Tennessee in receiving yards against Kentucky.
“Dont’e had a really nice performance,” Heupel said on Monday. “I thought he did a really good job with the ball not in his hands. When the ball came his way, he made plays. He was comfortable and performed extremely well.”
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It hasn’t been a quick process for Thornton this season but the coaching staff has continually talked about his work ethic on and off the practice field.
“This game is a microcosm of life,” Heupel said after the Kentucky game. “There’s ups, there’s downs. Battle it, you know what I mean? He’s had, not a tough go of it, but a tough go of it. I say that, he’s got banged up in the early part of spring, back end of training camp. He just didn’t get super comfortable in what we’re doing. And I love the fact that he’s got great energy every single day, gives energy to his teammates. He’s hyper-focused on what he wants to do to improve. He competes hard every single day. So the challenge, when it’s not going well, just mentally continue to invest. He’s done that and we expect him to play well down the stretch.”
Thornton had been backing up Squirrel White as a slot receiver throughout the season, which has been indicated on every Tennessee depth chart through the first eight games. A change came on Monday though as Thornton was listed as a potential starter as an outside receiver for the first time this season. Note, though, that Thornton is still listed as the backup slot receiver, too.
It will be interesting to see how Tennessee lines up the receivers for this weekend’s game against UConn. That being said, though, the opponent projects that all three X receivers could see good playing time throughout the game.
No. 19 Tennessee (6-2) will host UConn (1-7) this Saturday afternoon at 12:00 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.