When you think about the strengths of this Tennessee football team, you almost have to start with the receivers. Filled with upperclassmen, these Volunteer receivers are the strongest part of the offense heading into the 2019 season. They just need a little help from the offensive line, Jarrett Guarantano, along with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Tennessee hasn’t had a 1,000 yard receiver since Justin Hunter way back in 2012, could 2019 be the season that stat changes?
The Starting Trio: Callaway, Jennings, Palmer
Tennessee has three players capable of being the top option in this offense. They’re all similar — they’re big, and can win down the field with their 50-50 ball ability. If you had to name a true No. 1 though, you’d probably have to go with Marquez Callaway.
The senior receiver exploded onto the scene to open the 2017 season against Georgia Tech, willing the Vols to a victory with ridiculous grab after ridiculous grab. Unfortunately for Callaway, he’s been stuck in an offense ranked near the bottom of the barrel statistically for the last two seasons.
The struggles on the offensive line and at the quarterback position are related, which has spilled over to a lack of production at the receiver position. Callaway caught just 37 passes last season, totaling 592 yards and two touchdowns. I think anyone that’s watched Tennessee football over the last two seasons knows that he’s capable of much, much more.
Next in that trio would be Jauan Jennings, who is just looking to get healthy. We saw a healthy Jennings in the spring game, and the results were great. Jauan made plays down the field and scored a couple of touchdowns, finally looking like the player we all fell in love with back in 2016.
However, Jennings suffered a setback this summer, injuring his knee during a workout. He’s expected to be ready to go this fall, but that’s something to keep in mind if he doesn’t look like himself early on.
Finally, Josh Palmer emerged as a down-the-field guy in 2018. His 23 catches went for 484 yards, which comes out to a healthy 21 yards per catch average. The 6-2 junior has a nice blend of size and speed and like Callaway, could probably handle more volume. Palmer will likely return to the same role that he was in during the 2018 season, before becoming the guy ahead of the 2020 season.
X-Factor: Jordan Murphy
After finding himself totally out of the offense for the first half of 2018, Murphy got involved later in the year for the Vols — and the results were instant. Murphy provided a couple of big plays for Tennessee against Kentucky, prompting us all to ask, ‘where has this been all year?’
The numbers game is certainly working against Murphy with the starting three ahead of him, but he offers an element that the others don’t. Murphy’s speed differentiates him, and Tyson Helton seemed to figure that out too late in the 2018 season.
I wrote earlier this offseason that he needs a consistent role in this offense, which I still stand by today. Maybe with added protection for Jarrett Guarantano this season, Tennessee can attack down the field more with Murphy’s speed. At the very least, he’s a guy that’s going to run that safety out of the box for you.
Ghosts from the past: Tyler Byrd, Brandon Johnson
Remember when Brandon Johnson led the team in receiving yards in 2017? It’s easy to forget, so we’ll forgive you if you don’t. Johnson settled into the slot role in the final year under Butch Jones, actually putting together a nice season. But in 2018, he was nowhere to be found.
Johnson went from 482 yards in 2017 to 132 yards in 2018. It was a regression that was likely due to the emergence Palmer and Jennings finally being able to return to the lineup.
If you told me Tyler Byrd would have just four catches since his solid debut season in 2016, I would have told you that you were crazy. But that’s the exact situation that we are currently sitting in. The senior speedster hasn’t really been involved in the offense since his freshman season, despite his gamebreaking speed.
Byrd hauled in 15 catches for over 200 yard in his first season and appeared to be set to become a weapon as a sophomore. Instead, he appeared in just five games and caught three passes. When Jeremy Pruitt arrived, Byrd was even moved to defensive back for a period of time during spring ball. He was eventually moved back to the offensive side, but managed to catch just one pass all season long.
We immediately heard from Byrd in the spring game, when he caught a bomb from JT Shrout to open the game. Perhaps that’s a sign that he’ll be in for a few more snaps this season.
Both Johnson and Byrd are victims of the numbers game, despite being seniors. It’s tough to imagine them being much more than situational players in 2019.
Youth: Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman, Jerrod Means
Each of these guys are probably a year out from contributing in any consistent way, but Tillman did find some snaps during the 2018 season before shutting down to redshirt.
Keyton is the most interesting guy here, signing with Tennessee as a four-star prospect after playing in high school with 2020 Tennessee quarterback commit Harrison Bailey. The 6-2, 185 pound receiver finished just outside of the top 100 overall prospects in the 2019 class, according to 247 Sports.
With Jennings, Callaway, Johnson and Byrd exiting the program, you’ll be hearing from this trio regularly starting in 2020.