When Tennessee lost leading receiver Josh Malone to the NFL following last year, everybody expected the Vols would take a major dip in production at the position this year.
That may not be so cut-and-dry, after all.
Yes, UT will miss Malone, whose light finally came on last year to catch 50 balls for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns. Yes, the Vols will miss quarterback Joshua Dobbs and his play-making ability.
But it’s also possible they’ll be a better passing team with Quinten Dormady under center. After all, Dobbs did a lot with his feet, enough with his arm and won games with his grit and heart, but he was far from the most accurate passer, and he didn’t always make the best decisions.
Though nobody knows how Dormady will fare, he looked sharp in the spring game and also has proved he can make a lot of things happen with his big arm and escapability in limited game action thus far. He’s got a much better arm — much more live than Dobbs’ — and his ball placement is much better than the former UT starter’s, too. In other words, he puts the ball in a spot for his playmakers to make their next football move and get downfield.
So, what if the playmakers actually make plays? Don’t count out the receivers. In speaking with some people I trust during camp, this is an area where the coaches are pleasantly surprised and, it’s not a stretch to say, even very encouraged.
First-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott indicated as much to the media on Thursday.
“I tell you, I think right now it’s probably been more the receiver group, being that there are some young guys in there that haven’t necessarily played a little bit last year, but now they’re in some roles where that’s picked up for them,” Scott told the media, according to GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan.
“The way that they just responded to everything, with some of the things that we’re doing a little bit differently than we have in the past and different things like that, so I think that group has really kind of been a surprise, yet still has so far to go to be ready to go. But we’re definitely encouraged with what’s in that position group.”
That’s huge news for Tennessee’s offense. You’ve got to figure between Dormady and talented redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, the Vols will find a capable slinger to man the helm of the offense. Also, junior John Kelly has star quality and a team-first attitude that should translate into a big year on the ground behind a deep, veteran offensive line returning more than 110 starts.
The trio of freshman running backs — particularly Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan — have been good enough to push Carlin Fils-aime to the point that it would be a surprise if CFA is the second runner off the bench, and fellow freshman Trey Coleman looks like he has the potential to be a good short-yardage back. So, the running game looks to be on firm footing.
Tight end Ethan Wolf was challenged by an anonymous NFL scout this week in a Mike Griffith article for SEC Country as being “soft.” So, if he takes that as a challenge and responds in the right way, the Vols could get better play than they’ve had out of the position. There are plenty of options behind him, so you’d think one of them will step up.
All that leaves is the receiving corps, which, heading into fall camp, was expected to be “Jauan Jennings … and everybody else.”
It hasn’t been that way at all.
Jennings — the junior from Murfreesboro who already has etched his name in the memorable plays department at UT with his torching touchdown of Jalen Tabor to punctuate the Vols’ comeback victory over Florida last year and the Hail Mary grab in the Dobb-nail boot win over Georgia — certainly has that “dog” in him. The only thing he has left to prove is whether or not he can perform when opponents aren’t shading safeties toward Malone.
Jennings is big and physical, and he is known for making plays. But he has to improve on last year’s 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns. In order for him to do that, he needs help.
If this fall is any indication, he’s going to get it.
The Vols did a lot of 7-on-7 work this summer when they really hadn’t under head coach Butch Jones in the past, and that looks like it has paid off. The quarterbacks and receivers are more on the same page than many expected at this early stage of camp.
The good news starts with senior Josh Smith, who thus far has held off the emergence of redshirt freshman Latrell Williams and return of sophomore Tyler Byrd to be the starting slot receiver so far. There’s a long way to go, but Smith is showing up and showing out. I know you may not believe it after the past two sub-par seasons, but based on what I’ve heard from practice observers, Smith is quick and fluid.
Think about the player he was before the high ankle sprain against Oklahoma during his sophomore year, leaping defenders and turning big plays out of short gains. That’s the Josh Smith that has shown up so far in practice work now that he’s healthy. That’s big news for the Vols, who also look like they’ll be able to depend on Byrd AND Williams at the position, too.
On the other side opposite Jennings, the Vols have Marquez Callaway, who has the ability to be a standout receiver. The sophomore from Warner Robins, Georgia, had a punt return for a touchdown a season ago against Tennessee Tech, flashing some ability. He’ll get an extended audition this year on offense. So, between Callaway, Byrd (who should be on defense, but I digress…) and Williams, the Vols are excited about those playmakers at the position. Their speed, elusiveness and wiggle combined with Dormady’s ability to put the ball in positions for them to turn and get upfield could be big for Tennessee.
Then there’s sophomore Brandon Johnson, who looked like he had the potential to do big things, getting a lot of playing time as a true freshman. He had just seven catches for 93 yards, but he also showed ability in practices and again looks good this summer. The second-year player from American Heritage High School in Florida is the nephew of Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson and the son of former major league catcher Charles Johnson, and those athletic bloodlines translated well.
So, we’re up to Jennings, Smith, Callaway, Johnson, Byrd and Williams. All of those guys have given UT fans reasons to be excited about the youth and potential at the receiving corps during the first couple of weeks of camp.
And that isn’t even to mention one of the biggest stories of practices so far. On defense, everybody is buzzing about true freshman linebacker Will Ignont. Offensively, that constant buzz-worthy player is receiver Josh Palmer, a player who wasn’t even a part of Tennessee’s class last year until very late.
He is a Canadian pass-catcher who moved from up North to Florida last year to catch the eye of college football teams. He was initially committed to Syracuse, but the Vols and Scott identified him, loved what they saw and convinced him to come to Knoxville. That looks like a coup.
The 6’2″, 198-pound receiver is the most physically ready of the freshmen, and he will help right away. All the talk you have heard isn’t just lip service; he’s the real deal. Though there’s always the threat of a freshman wall, Palmer is going to make a lot of plays very soon.
Though he was the 122nd-ranked RECEIVER — not player — in the 247Sports rankings, the Vols wanted him badly when they saw him. He’s proving that evaluation right.
“He was kind of a late bloomer,” UT head coach Butch Jones told GoVols247’s Grant Ramey. “You never really know until they get here. Again, it’s just a level of consistency. He hasn’t missed one rep.”
He’s made the most of those reps, too, as Jones told the media that Palmer would play “a lot of football” for the Vols this year.
Of course, everything hasn’t been perfect this summer.
But, the good has far outweighed the negative.
So, without question, UT will miss Malone’s big-play ability from a season ago. This receiving corps would really have the potential to be excellent had he not bolted to the NFL draft, where he was selected by Cincinnati in the fourth round. But there are enough quality talents at the position to produce and make up for those numbers as a collective unit this year.
First-year receivers coach Kevin Beard has a lot of good prospects on his hands, and it appears he’s getting them to blossom. If that continues and the Vols can get consistency from Dormady (or Guarantano), the passing game may not miss a beat from last year, and it’s even possible it can be better.