Tennessee WR Dont’e Thornton. Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.
Thanks to the quality of Tennessee’s receiving corps over the past two seasons in Knoxville, the Vols have boasted one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country under head coach Josh Heupel.
During Heupel’s first year on campus, Tennessee used a combination of Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton and second-year Tennessee receiver Velus Jones Jr. to achieve a Top 50 passing attack in the nation. During Heupel’s second season, though, Tennessee broke out to the No. 7 passing attack in the country behind a star-defining year from Jalin Hyatt combined with really solid and productive years from Bru McCoy, Cedric Tillman, and Ramel Keyton.
The expectation within the program heading into the year is that Tennessee will return to having the top offense in the country. That comes from newly promoted offensive coordinator Joey Halzle, who is choosing to look at last season as more of a jumping-off point rather than a freakishly good year to admire from the rearview window.
With Hyatt and Tillman departing, along with Mr. Do It All Princeton Fant, Tennessee will be looking to new players to step up and fill critical roles this season – particularly from the wide receiver position.
One of the players that Tennessee will look for production from is sophomore Squirrel White. The Birmingham, Alabama, native broke out towards the back half of the slate last year, totaling 16 receptions for 300 yards and one touchdown in the Vols’ final four regular season games. White then closed down his freshman season with a memorable Orange Bowl appearance, catching nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Tennessee also brought in former Oregon wide receiver Dont’e Thornton from the transfer portal. The 6-foot-5 receiver hauled in a total of 26 receptions for 541 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games played for the Ducks. Thornton has great size, great speed, and valuable experience for a Tennessee receiver room undergoing a good bit of transition.
“Absolutely, you can get both of those guys at the same time,” Tennessee wide receiver coach Kelsey Pope said on Monday about getting White and Thornton to play slot. “I think another thing that you have to be conscious of is having guys being able to play multiple spots because you want your best players on the field. Whether it is those two are in that group or whoever, you have to have some guys play multiple spots. It allows you to do that.”
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Knowing that both guys do have versatility on the field, Pope also spoke about the differences that each has in their game.
“Body type for one,” Pope said about Thornton and White. “Dont’e is 6’5, 205-210 (pounds). Squirrel is 5’8, he is around 170 now. Both of those guys have the ability to run. Squirrel is more of a vertical guy. Donte’ can run, he adds a little bit more lateral, little bit more on the line of scrimmage. Both of those guys have a unique skill set that we are going to have to take advantage of this year and it will help us win.”
Another player that Tennessee will call upon this season is veteran receiver Ramel Keyton. The longtime Tennessee wideout filled in for injured receiver Cedric Tillman for a good portion of the year last season and performed well in his role. Keyton still gave Tennessee enough firepower to be respected by the defense and is looking to expand upon that heading into a crucial year for the Vols.
“Ramel is a savvy veteran,” Pope said. “He is all ball and he has done a great job of taking that leadership role. He has been more of a quiet guy, just naturally, and I think he has seen himself emerge into that leadership role because he has seen a lot of football. In that room, he has seen the most ball. He has been here the most and it shows in his level of play. In situations where bullets are flying and other guys might get out of wack, Ramel is cool, calm and collected, and that allows him to make plays in those situations.”
Tennessee freshman wide receiver Nathan Leacock at Vol Football spring camp on Tuesday in Knoxville. Photo via RTI/Ryan Schumpert.
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Once Tennessee finds their rotation of roughly four guys, that’s normally the group they stick with throughout the season. The Vols primarily leaned on Hyatt, Keyton, McCoy, and Tillman throughout the season last year, with Squirrel White picking up plenty of passes with injured teammates. It looks like those four to five this season will be McCoy, White, Keyton, and Thornton Jr.
Still, though, there’s an outside chance that some of Tennessee’s very skilled younger players could break through the surface and find playing time for Tennessee this season. Pope referred to highly-skilled freshman Nathan Leacock as a “physical specimen” this past week, one that is “extremely gifted” and “awesome” to watch out on the field. Pope also said that rising sophomore receivers Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb have been “gaining more confidence” among their peers after being able to watch the success of Hyatt, Tillman, and McCoy last season.
No matter who is on the field, Pope expects success from his unit. But the second-year Tennessee wide receivers coach isn’t specifying exactly what he wants from his group just yet. It is only April, after all.
“I think that is to be seen,” Pope said about the expectations he has for his group this season. “That is why you have to stay in it, part of the word ‘process’ is you never know what the end product will be. We can start hot and not have the type of work ethic we want and things go the opposite way. We could start not the way we want to and start to work and prepare the right way and get things going. I think that is always to be seen; my main focus is not really the end result or production. I just want to see these kids operate, I want to see them build habits because those are ultimately what is going to take over when bullets are flying.”