Let’s continue the series with a look at the Tennessee wide receivers depth chart exiting spring with a prediction of what to expect this September.
Spring practice — like most all the springs before of the Butch Jones era — didn’t tell us much. But after what we saw and read, we can make some prognostications about what we may see, or at least expect to see, once fall practice starts. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to break down position-by-position what we saw, what we read and what I’ve heard about to project who’s gonna play where come opening weekend against Georgia Tech.
We’ll continue this series with our look at the Wide Receivers.
When you think of Tennessee wide receivers, the first thing that may come to your mind is a lanky, sleek route-runner who is graceful with the football. All that is nice, but when I think of building my perfect receiver, I can just point in the direction of Tennessee’s No. 15.
Yep. He may not be the fastest wide receiver on the team, but UT’s 6’3″, 205-pound junior pass-catcher is plenty big, he’s uber-tough and he’s an alpha dog. He’s the type of guy who’ll go up for a football, and he’d rather slit your throat than let you come down with his football. He wants to gain yards; he wants to score touchdowns; and nobody works harder doing it. If Tennessee’s offense is going to reach its pinnacle in 2017, it needs to get Jennings the football.
You know Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano know that. Jennings is good, and he’s mean. His new coach, Kevin Beard, knows just how good he is, too, telling former Chattanooga Times Free Press [and current GoVols247] reporter Patrick Brown:
“I’m trying to get him to understand that we’re going to do big things,” Beard said. “I’m excited to work with him and just working on him being a leader and working on being the leader that we need him to be. He is a championship football player, and he can help bring the whole team to that level just by walking and talking. Then when he gets out there to play, it takes care of itself.
“I’m just trying to get him to understand that this team is going to go as far as he’s going to take us.”
Those are heavy words, but, in essence, they’re true. Behind John Kelly, Jennings is the most irreplaceable player on UT’s offense. The Vols must have him playing at his absolute highest, most-freakish level to win big in ’17. You can go ahead and write his name in Sharpie in the starting lineup.
Plus, Jennings will always be know for catching the Dobbs-nail boot Hail Mary to beat Georgia. Oh, and this against Jalen “Teez” Tabor to help UT beat Florida.
Oh, and after that catch against Georgia, when asked where it ranked, Jennings said, “Probably second, behind burning Tabor.”
Who’s after Jennings?
But the Vols need more than just Jennings in 2017. There’s a lot of talent, but there simply aren’t a lot of proven playmakers. Though it would have benefited both UT and Josh Malone for him to return for his senior season, it’s hard to fault the Nashville native, who was picked by Cincinnati in the fourth round of the NFL draft and just signed a four-year deal worth $3 million. With him gone, Tennessee needs to find some guys for the quarterbacks to bombard.
Also, kind of a forgotten man who’d really help Tennessee this year but transferred to Colorado State instead is Preston Williams, a former 5-star receiver who didn’t mesh well with former Vols receivers coach Zach Azzanni and transferred early in the season a year ago. The Vols really could have used him in 2017. But the cupboard isn’t bare.
It’s time for senior Josh Smith to finally be consistent. After a horrendous freshman year, it appeared that his sophomore season would be a breakout campaign before he got hurt and missed the rest of the year. The past two years have been underwhelming, and as a junior in ’16, he wound up with just 13 catches for 97 yards. Is he even a starter? He’s certainly capable, but Smith must do better than that, and he’s shown no consistency in a career that’s been halted by injuries, too.
The better bets for UT’s breakout, complimentary receivers could come in the form of a quartet of second-year players. Sophomore Marquez Callaway certainly looks the part. At 6’2″, 190 pounds, the Warner Robins, Georgia, native is smooth and sturdy, and he looked super-athletic during a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown last year against Tennessee Tech. He never really got worked into the receiver rotation, but he wound up with a solid spring, and the Vols are going to depend on him this year.
Tyler Byrd’s best position may well be cornerback, and while it’s puzzling UT isn’t playing him there, the sophomore has the ability to be a quality receiver, too. He was raw in 2016, but the playing time he earned could be invaluable. The 6’0″, 195-pound athlete caught 15 passes for 209 yards, and Tennessee tried to get him loose in space. It didn’t happen often, but Byrd has the wiggle you want for a slot receiver. He also had 63 rushing yards and averaged more than 26 yards per kickoff return. If he could somehow get to 500 receiving yards as a sophomore, it probably means the Vols passing game is just fine.
The third of the quartet is a wild card, but he sure is a blazing fast one. Late in the 2016 recruiting class, the Vols snagged a surprise commitment in speedy receiver Latrell Williams, getting him to flip from Miami on national signing day. Williams redshirted in ’16 after battling some nagging injuries, and he looked like a potential electrifying athlete this spring who really could help the Vols. He, too, is far from a finished product, but the ability is there.
“…[T]he one thing he’s learning is how to control that speed,” Beard told Wes Rucker of GoVols247. “A lot of times, fast guys, they try to do everything fast. But they’re out of control, ultimately. So he’s learning how to control his speed and keep his toes under his shoulders. He’s coming along really good.”
Finally, keeping the Florida trend of UT receivers recruited by Larry Scott is Brandon Johnson, the nephew of former Cincinnati Bengals great Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson. The 6’2″, 180-pound sophomore had seven catches for 93 yards a season ago, and he hit a bit of a wall. But he also showed ability, and he’s a great route-runner who could wind up really helping UT.
Senior Jeff George could be a red-zone weapon with his 6’6″ height, and though he never really lived up to the initial strong spring he had, it’s not too late for him to be a jump-ball guy inside the 20. Let’s face it: Last year, when the Vols needed touchdowns, there was no better weapon on the roster than Dobbs on a keeper with his magnificent freelancing ability. Also, they changed it up some and gave Alvin Kamara a lot of bubble screens that he took to the goal line as well.
This year, those options aren’t around. So, George could find himself on the field with Jennings in scoring situations.
What about the new guys?
The Vols also did a quality job recruiting receivers, and though Oak Ridge’s Tee Higgins [who committed to Clemson] could have pushed UT’s class over the edge, the guys the Vols did bring in will help if they can just get them on campus. Probably the best of the bunch, Mississippi pass-catcher Jordan Murphy, has yet to qualify, and he’s really the only one in the class who could have a hard time getting in. There’s still a good chance he’ll make it to Knoxville, but he isn’t a guarantee as of yet. If he makes it, he’s got the opportunity to step right in and get reps.
Perhaps the most under-the-radar player who has the opportunity for an excellent freshman campaign is Florida freshman Josh Palmer, who came down to the Sunshine State from his native Ontario, Canada, to get noticed. It worked. He was committed to Syracuse until late in the game when the Vols, Michigan, Florida and others offered. He chose UT, and he could be one of the biggest coups of the class. “Air Canada” is 6’2″, 200 pounds and is extremely fast. He is a difference-maker who’ll score some touchdowns for UT in ’17. Finally, another Florida product [the UT receiving corps is full of them] is fast freshman Jacquez Jones, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of impact he makes as a freshman.
So, if you’re scoring at home, there are two trends here.
- The Vols have an absolute ton of players from Florida, and new offensive coordinator Larry Scott recruited a lot of them, so he’s familiar with them and, hopefully for UT, he’ll know how to use them.
- The vast majority of the guys are freshmen or sophomores who have little or no experience. That doesn’t bode well for UT, but who knows what these guys are going to do when given an opportunity? They have the ability to shine, and some guys need to emerge for the young quarterbacks.
WR1: Jauan Jennings, Jeff George, Jordan Murphy
Slot: Tyler Byrd, Josh Smith, Latrell Williams, Jacquez Jones
WR3: Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson, Josh Palmer