Pass Distribution & New Wide Receivers

The addition of Bru McCoy this week raises the ceiling on our hypothetical offseason conversations. And it was already fairly high given what this offense did last season, even with Velus Jones and Javonta Payton now off to the NFL.

There may be more on the way:

Robinson’s familiarity with Heupel is an obvious plus, and he would give Tennessee another option in a room full of intriguing possibilities. In this fast-paced offense, there’s an idea here that there will be plenty of footballs to go around. Off-season additions can feel like they’re a contribution to a conversation about who the fourth or fifth guy will be.

But at least in year one, the rotation ended up being so much tighter, the better off-season question turned out to be, “Who’s number two?”

Last season Cedric Tillman caught 64 passes, Velus Jones 62. Those two combined for 51.9% of Tennessee’s total receptions, and 63.3% of the receptions among the regular rotation (players catching 10+ passes in 2021). Both of those numbers are higher than anything we’ve seen around here recently:

Top Receiving Duos at UT, 2009-21

SeasonTop 2 Pass CatchersPct. of Receptions
2021Tillman & Velus51.9%
2020Palmer & Gray35.2%
2019Jennings & Palmer46.5%
2018Jennings & Callaway38.1%
2017B. Johnson & Kelly41.1%
2016Malone & Jennings37.8%
2015Pearson & Kamara32.7%
2014Howard & Pearson32.7%
2013Howard & North42.9%
2012Hunter & Patterson41.8%
2011Rogers & Rivera43.0%
2010G. Jones & D. Moore42.9%
2009G. Jones & D. Moore36.9%

Also seeing two players at or close to 50% of the team’s total receptions: UCF under Heupel.

  • 2020: Marlon Williams & Jaylon Robinson, 50.6%
  • 2019: Gabriel Davis & Marlon Williams, 45.4%
  • 2018: Gabriel Davis & Dredrick Snelson, 42.9%

Their 2019 number would also be higher than anything seen at UT in the post-Fulmer era after 2021 and 2019. In the latter, the Vols had the future NFL trio of Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer. How does it look if we expand it to the top three targets:

Top Receiving Trios at Tennessee, 2009-21

SeasonTop 3 Pass CatchersPct. of Receptions
2021Tillman, Velus, Hyatt60.5%
2020Palmer, Gray, Velus47.5%
2019Jennings, Callaway, Palmer61.5%
2018Jennings, Callaway, Palmer51.5%
2017B. Johson, Kelly, Callaway54.4%
2016Malone, Jennings, Kamara54.6%
2015Pearson, Kamara, Malone46.8%
2014Howard, Pearson, Hurd45.2%
2013Howard, North, R. Neal57.1%
2012Hunter, Patterson, Rivera54.4%
2011Rogers, Rivera, D. Arnett53.8%
2010Jones, Moore, Stocker59.2%
2009Jones, Moore, Stocker49.4%

Here, outside of that NFL trio in 2019, last season again separates itself from the pack.

Is there a correlation between the best offenses and diversity of targets? Tyler Bray’s 2012 attack and Josh Dobbs’ 2016 squad were almost identical in the percentage of catches by their top three targets; Bray’s used a tight end Dobbs’ a back.

At UCF, trios were the name of the game in their dynamite offenses in 2018 and 2019:

  • 2018: G. Davis, D. Snelson, T. Nixon 60.7%
  • 2019: G. Davis, M. Williams, T. Nixon 63.5%

So consistently, we’ve seen this coaching staff find its best two or three wide receivers, and ride them to incredible heights all season long.

After two weeks last season, it looked like Tennessee would throw it to the tight end more than ever. But that gave way to a lethal attack involving Velus, Tillman, plus Javonta Payton 18 times for 413 yards.

Jaylin Hyatt actually ended the season with three more receptions than Payton. He caught four passes against Bowling Green in the opener, then didn’t catch a pass until the South Carolina game. His 17 catches over the last eight games made for a nice quartet of options at receiver for Tennessee’s offense, along with 34 combined receptions for Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant.

One consistent truth last season: after the running back being the #3 receiver throughout the Butch Jones era, Heupel’s offense almost never looked their way in the passing game. With just 20 total receptions for backs last season, the Vol offense fell generally in line with what they saw at UCF. Otis Anderson had 31 catches as a back in 2019; no other back had more than 20 in a season during his time there.

This coaching staff loves receivers, and loves finding the best of their best. I would assume it’ll still be important to figure out who the fourth option is in this passing game. But if form holds, the real question at this point is who will be number two.

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