Much of the outlook for the 2020 Tennessee wide receivers will center around guys who aren’t on the team anymore. Or, that’s how I imagine the narrative will unfold, at least until the season starts.
That’s not a knock on the guys coming back or an indictment of their skills. It’s just kinda how things go when a group loses the three of its top four statistical leaders.
Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Dominick Wood-Anderson are all gone, and with them go the 110 catches, nearly 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those aren’t pedestrian numbers, and they won’t be easy to replace. So let’s take a look at the roster and see if we can shed some light on how the Vols can fill that void.
Palmer will be a senior in 2020, and I expect him to shine as Tennessee’s default no. 1 receiver. He’s spent most of his career on the outskirts of integral by mixing head-turning grabs, like the TD against Kentucky in the video below, with face-palming drops while operating within the safety net of Callaway and Jennings’s collective shadow.
The little toe tap from Josh Palmer to take the lead. pic.twitter.com/ZjU8Ps3Kep— More Important Issues (@More_Issues) November 10, 2019
That go-ahead score against Kentucky wouldn’t have counted in the NFL, since Palmer got just one foot down in bounds, but it sure makes for an impressive college football catch. It’s also an apt visual aid for Palmer’s tantalizing potential.
A native of Ontario, Canada, Palmer’s worn a few different hats for the Tennessee offense in his first three seasons. First, and possibly most important, he’s inherently on the list for Vol fans’ favorite Canadians with former UT hooper Kyle Alexander.
While Palmer’s freshman year was unremarkable, as a sophomore in 2018 he emerged as Tennessee’s most prolific deep-ball threat with a 21-yards per catch average that ranked seventh-best in the country and first for Tennessee and the SEC.
Though he found the end zone just three times that season, his team-leading 10 plays of 20-plus yards anchored the break-out performance and accounted for nearly 50 percent of his touches for the season.
In 2019, the offense leaned more on Callaway’s considerable frame and jump-ball skills for its big plays, so Palmer hauled in more grabs with fewer explosive plays. He finished second on the team with 34 catches by working around the coverages intent on stopping the Callaways/ Jennings tandem.
Perhaps the Gator Bowl performances gave us some insight to the expected production for the 2020 Tennessee wide receivers. With Jennings suspended for the game’s first half and Callaway largely held in check, Palmer led the team in catches and yards, hauling in six passes for 68 yards.
Freshman Ramel Keyton finished second on the team in receiving yards against Indiana with 60, even though he hit the mark with just two catches. Those two catches account for half of his four total catches for the season.
His total catches and yards for the year don’t pop off the page, but those grabs were enough to get fans excited for his potential in 2020 and beyond. His 26-yard average was best on the team for any player who caught more than one pass, and it showed (maybe...?) a glimpse of a glance of a knack for hauling in contested, one-on-one grabs.
His total playing time didn’t yield numbers sufficient for a reasonable projection of his 2020 campaign, but Keyton made good use of Jennings’ first-half suspension against Indiana, and his 46-yard reception was more than enough lead to wrangle in Vol fans’ ever-renewing sense of optimism. Also, it should be noted that Keyton played high-school ball for Marietta HS in Georgia, and he’s got a preexisting rapport with incoming freshman QB Harrison Bailey.
#Vols 4-star WR commit Ramel Keyton takes pass from Marietta 2020 QB Harrison Bailey for game’s first points vs Rome in Corky Kell Classic https://t.co/4kbNmAkpBe pic.twitter.com/Sw5Fu46Xq7— Chad Carson (@ChadCarson247) August 17, 2018
Johnson is Palmer’s fellow elder statesmen in the wide-receiver room, as 2020 will be his senior year after redshirting in 2019.
Pruitt played a bit of Tetris with the roster when he decided to redshirt Johnson and preserve his final year of eligibility. Ideally, this move insures Palmer isn’t the only player returning with significant experience and helps mitigate the losses of Callaway and Jennings.
Johnson was a four-star and top-100 prospect in the state of Florida, but he’s not a player that many are expecting a gaudy statistical season from. In 2017, Johnson’s sophomore year, he was tied for the team-lead with 37 catches and finished first with 482 receiving yards. He found the end zone just once that year, and he’s got just two scores for his career.
At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Johnson’s a big target and chances are he knows the playbook as well as anybody on the team. He’s also made it through Pruitt’s paring down of the roster, so hopefully he’s a positive influence at a spot on the roster with lotsa young guys.
Deangelo Gibbs — RS Junior
Cedric Tillman — RS Sophomore
Velus Jones, Jr. — Graduate transfer, Senior
Jalin Hyatt — Freshman — 4 star
Malachi Wideman — Freshman — 4 star
Depending on which side of the ball Gibbs ends up, I expect each of the guys mentioned above to play significant snaps in 2020.
Jones and Tillman provide some experience, but Hyatt and Wideman are too gifted to not see the field. Wideman’s highlights remind me so much of a young Justin Hunter. There are going to be ups, downs and growing pains, but the wide receivers are gonna be exciting to watch.