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Which Tennessee football receivers will help Cedric Tillman get open? It's a preseason mystery

The Knoxville News-Sentinel logo The Knoxville News-Sentinel 8/5/2022 Adam Sparks, Knoxville News Sentinel
Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the NCAA college football game between the Tennesse Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, November 27, 2021. © Saul Young/News Sentinel Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the NCAA college football game between the Tennesse Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, November 27, 2021.

Cedric Tillman doesn’t know which Tennessee receivers will catch passes beside him or pull coverage away from him.

But he believes they’ll do the job, and they better.

Tillman is relying on a new crop of wide receivers to help him repeat the 1,000-yard season that put him on the map a year ago.

“I don’t particularly know who it will be,” Tillman said. “I guess we’ll see when we start the season.”

There seems to be an abiding faith that UT will reload its receiving corps even though it returns the smallest percentage of experienced players on offense.

The Vols return their top two quarterbacks, two of three running backs, four of five starters on the offensive line and both tight ends. But Tillman is the only starting wide receiver returning from a trio that paced the highest-scoring offense in UT history.

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“If (Tillman) was a one-man show, it would be really hard,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “But I’m pretty confident that it won’t be that way.”

Players and coaches are so confident the wide receiver won’t miss a beat because they’ve seen it before.

“A year ago, we were walking into the same situation with (Tillman) being a guy that nobody knew about,” Golesh said. “Velus (Jones Jr.) was a guy nobody knew about. I think it’ll kind of play itself out.”

Vols face same task as a year ago

Coach Josh Heupel’s offense brought out of the best in under-utilized receivers in his first season with the Vols.

Tillman went from 67 yards receiving in 2020 to 1,081 yards in 2021, making him the SEC’s returning leader. Jones went from 280 yards to 807 yards over the same two seasons. JaVonta Payton’s production increased from 225 yards at Mississippi State in 2020 to 413 yards at UT in 2021.

Jones and Payton went to the NFL, but the Vols think they can dig up diamonds in the rough again.

“We’ve got a lot of talent in the receiver room,” Tillman said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, maybe a lot of unproven guys. But we had a lot to prove last year — me, Velus and JaVonta.

“We’ve got the right guys, and I think it will show when we start the season.”

Here are the receivers who could step forward

Jalin Hyatt is the top candidate for a breakout season. He fills Jones’ role at slot receiver but with a different skill set.

Jones was a physical runner who thrived by catching passes over the middle and breaking tackles. Hyatt is a lean, long-striding deep threat who should add vertical routes to the slot position. He had 21 catches for 226 yards with two TDs last season.

At the outside receiver opposite Tillman, senior Ramel Keyton and Southern Cal transfer Bru McCoy could step into a key role. Keyton is untapped in the way that Tillman was a year ago. McCoy touts talent but hasn’t been declared eligible.

And there are other possibilities. Golesh said Jimmy Calloway is “super inconsistent,” but he also has big-play ability. Freshman Squirrel White has tremendous speed, but that alone doesn’t earn immediate playing time.

And speedy Jimmy Holiday could play on the outside. 

The rub is that Heupel’s up-tempo offense usually doesn’t allow for substitutions, so no more than three receivers are featured. That means the best three receivers must be identified in preseason practice.

If not, Tillman could see opponents shade coverages toward him in a way he didn’t deal with last season. But the Vols are keeping faith that the answers will come.

“Obviously, if it becomes a one-man show, that would be really hard offensively,” Golesh said. “But in this system, looking back at it over the years, it’s kind of played itself out.”

Adam Sparks: University of Tennessee football reporter

Twitter: @AdamSparks | Email | Support the best coverage of University of Tennessee athletics and enjoy subscriber perks. Visit knoxnews.com/subscribe.

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Which Tennessee football receivers will help Cedric Tillman get open? It's a preseason mystery

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