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Breaking Down Tennessee’s Receiving Room After Spring Camp

Chris Brazzell
Tennessee WR Chris Brazzell at spring camp. Photo via RTI.

Tennessee gave wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope a raise and an extension this offseason after two productive seasons leading the Vols’ pass-catchers on the outside. And while Josh Heupel and Joey Halzle orchestrate the broad offense as a whole, Pope will have the task of figuring out how to best use Tennessee’s room of receivers after a growth spurt (figuratively, not literally) this spring.

The Vols are set to return a handful of receivers from the previous season with two of those starters returning to the field off of an injury. Tennessee also added one of the American Athletic Conference’s top players out of the portal and brought in a five-star receiver from the most recent recruiting class.

So with all that being said, what will Tennessee’s receiving core look like next season? While the Vols have opted to go with a shortened rotation in the past, the depth of the room could make things interesting in the build to Nico Iamaleava’s first full season behind center.

Tennessee returns their leading receiver from 2023 with Squirrel White, who tallied 803 yards and two touchdowns on 67 receptions across the year. The Vols will also bring back veterans Bru McCoy and Dont’e Thornton, who both saw their seasons cut short due to injuries last year. In their absence, though, Tennessee used Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb in different positions as they caught 19 and 18 passes across the season, respectively.

The Vols added a new layer of speed to the receiving room over the offseason with Tulane receiver Chris Brazzell and five-star prospect Mike Matthews. The vertical speed of both players was evident in the Orange and White game back in April as Matthews landed a 63-yard touchdown catch and Brazzell hauled in a 71-yard touchdown catch of his own. Despite being a freshman and a first-year transfer, both Matthews and Brazzell have quickly impressed during their time on Rocky Top.

McCoy and White did not participate in the spring game, prompting an opportunity for others to step up and make plays with two projected starters not involved. Nimrod finished with 32 yards and a touchdown while Webb landed three receptions for 28 yards.

Head coach Josh Heupel explained his early thoughts on Tennessee’s receiving options in 2024, discussing how he determines the rotation both before and during the season.

“Guys that are going to play at a championship level, that have earned the right to play, it’s the coaches’ responsibility to put them in a position to go do the things that they do at a really high level,” Heupel said after the spring game. “Don’t ask them to do things they can’t do. Ask them to do things that they can do.”

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While Heupel does describe the room as “the deepest wide receiver pool” that he has had at Tennessee, the fourth-year Tennessee coach acknowledges that there’s still growth that goes into it.

“Now, there’s a lot of young guys within our system that still have a lot of growth that they got to make before we get to the opener,” Heupel continued on to say. “Really, before we get to training camp too. And that’s freshmen, transfer young guys inside of our system. But I love the competitiveness of that group. They’ve made plays.”

Bru McCoy looks set to return to the starting lineup next season after wrapping up his recovery this offseason while Squirrel White looks poised to be Tennessee’s starter in the slot after a productive 2023 season. Freshman wide receiver Braylon Staley might also be a name to look at when it comes to secondary players in the slot as a talented freshman himself.

That leaves a starting outside spot that will likely go to either Dont’e Thornton or Chris Brazzell.

Mike Matthews is also a contender to see playing time on the field as a versatile receiver with a bevy of talents. ESPN’s Billy Tucker tagged Matthews as his pick for Tennessee’s most impactful newcomer next season, adding to the hype building around the young player.

The additions of Matthews and Brazzell, along with a returning Thornton and McCoy, might see Webb and Nimrod pushed back to a reserve role, but it’s still too early to tell in May, especially considering how common injuries unfortunately are throughout the year. We’ll have a better idea once training camp rolls around this August.

Until then, though, Tennessee’s receivers have been hard at work without worry of depth charts and roster movement. The spring and the summer are all about getting better and getting prepared.

“Fundamentally they’re getting so much better,” Heupel said about his newcomers. “Releases, (when) the ball (is) not in their hands, how they’re blocking, understanding how to stem and work second-, third-level defenders. It’s been really good to see how they’ve grown and a lot left out there for them.”

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more offseason coverage throughout the summer.

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