NASHVILLE, TN – September 02, 2023 – Wide receiver Dont’e Thornton Jr. #1 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics.
While Josh Heupel’s offense has been ultra-productive over his first two seasons in Knoxville, it’s not necessarily a plug-and-play system.
Tennessee’s offense is a well-known complex machine that has several different moving components to each play in order to operate at the up-tempo rate that the Vols want to do.
With the departures of WR Jalin Hyatt, WR Cedric Tillman, and TE Princeton Fant last season, Tennessee looked to the transfer portal over the offseason and brought in 6-foot-5 receiver Dont’e Thornton from Oregon. Seeing Thornton’s build on the field during training camp matched up with offensive coordinator Joey Halzle’s comments describing him as a freaky player.
Through three games, though, Thornton only has five receptions. Tennessee’s offense hasn’t been operating at it’s most efficient mark but Thornton is also still figuring out his place within the receiving core.
“He is a freak, athletically, let’s start off with that,” Halzle said on Tuesday. “His size and speed combination. What we do is different. And sometimes there’s a learning curve. You’ve seen it before like you saw Jalin Hyatt, year one to year two was different. You saw Dont’e, Saturday night, make some big plays down the field. He got some balls on the edge and made a guy miss and got us a nice play back on track when we were behind schedule.”
Thornton ended Saturday’s contest in Gainesville with three receptions for 53 yards including a 43-yard deep pass from quarterback Joe Milton to set Tennessee up near the redzone. That reception came off the immediate heels of another deep pass attempt to Thornton that was broken up by the Florida defensive back. Those back-to-back plays showed a glimpse of what Thornton can do and how his deep ball ability can alter a defense’s pre-play setup.
As Thornton continues to find his role with the Tennessee offense, Halzle doesn’t have concerns over whether that will come to fruition or not. Halzle said on Tuesday that Thornton’s mindset inside the building will help him become the player that he wants to be and the player that Tennessee brought him in to be.
“So you’re seeing him grow and what I love about Dont’e is his attitude hasn’t shifted,” Halzle continued on to say. “He hasn’t gone into, ‘Well I’m not getting the production I want so now I’m mad.’ All he is doing is trying to figure out – how do I get more production, what do I need to learn, what more do I need to watch. He’s been meeting extra – like, as much as anybody like a freshman. So that’s what’s great about him and I expect his productivity to grow as we grow through the season.”
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Thornton racked up 541 yards and three touchdowns throughout 26 games with the Oregon Ducks from 2021-2022. Through three games with Tennessee, Thornton has five receptions for 65 yards.
Dont’e Thornton landed at Tennessee because of the offensive system that Josh Heupel has shown to have over the past two years. And while it has come along a little slower than he may like over the first three games, the belief in Thornton’s ability for the team this year remains high within the coaching staff.
“I would definitely say that’s a big reason for why I came here,” Thornton said about Tennessee’s receiver-friendly offense during training camp. “I’d say the biggest part about this offense being receiver-friendly is the fact that coach Heupel wants to throw the ball. Like, if you look back and see, he threw the ball most of the time throughout his first two years. That’s the most any head coach or offensive-minded coach threw the ball, at least in two seasons. So you can see if you’re a receiver, this is the best place for you to be.”