Tennessee wide receiver Dont’e Thornton has found a new role with the Vols’ offense entering the final stretch of the season. After spending the first eight weeks of the season listed as a slot receiver behind Squirrel White, Thornton has found new opportunities on the outside that has led to a more comfortable, confident player on the field.
Thornton transferred to Tennessee this past offseason after spending his first two seasons with Oregon. While many thought Thornton’s size at 6-foot-5, 214-pounds would immediately make him a threat in Josh Heupel’s potent passing offense, it’s taken a little bit longer to get the ball rolling, but not from the fault of Thornton.
The former Oregon transfer was banged up during the spring and portions of fall camp as he worked to soak in as much of the offensive scheme as possible.
“He’s had, not a tough go of it, but a tough go of it,” Josh Heupel said after the Kentucky game. “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.”
Tennessee’s offense isn’t a plug-and-play type of system. The Vols’ coaching staff have explained this year the challenges of picking up the offense so quickly and the added elements of not being able to fully participate on the practice field. Fortunately for Tennessee’s offense, though, Thornton has started to find his comfort here in the last few weeks, particularly as a receiver on the outside.
“I think we’ve been able to get him confident, comfortable,” Tennessee wide receiver coach Kelsey Pope said of Thornton on Tuesday. “I think early on, a lot of that, he’s a kid that he wants to do so well. You kind of toe that line of pressing and being aggressive and just getting him to calm down and not press so much and just go play football. I think now you’re seeing a confident version of him, which is why he’s able to go make plays.”
When Bru McCoy went down with a season-ending injury in the fifth week of the season against South Carolina, Tennessee turned to their duo of redshirt freshman receivers with Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod to fill in on the outside. That lasted all of two games as Thornton would be moved to the outside for the first time this season against Kentucky in a starting role.
Thornton went on to lead Tennessee in receiving yards with 63 on three receptions in that game against the Wildcats. The junior wide receiver then followed that up with a two-reception, 26-yard performance in a 56-point blowout win over UConn back in Knoxville.
One play from the Kentucky game that stands out in regards to Thornton’s gained comfort on the field happened in the third quarter in Lexington. During a pivotal drive with Tennessee leading 23-17, the Vols were facing a daunting 2nd and 19. Quarterback Joe Milton rolled out to his left to avoid pressure and made an impressive throw across his body to Thornton, who adjusted his route in the middle of the play to create space for the reception. Milton and Thornton connected on the reception and Thornton’s legs carried the play nearly 50 yards into Kentucky territory.
Tennessee will need a productive Thornton over their next two games, which is why the thoughts from Pope and Heupel are encouraging for the Tennessee fanbase. The Vols will take on Missouri this weekend in Columbia before returning home to host Georgia in Knoxville. The Vols have racked up 753 passing yards over their last three games and will need to continue to find success through the air in order to make more room for the ferocious running game.
Missouri will host Tennessee this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.