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Heupel, Jones talk addition of veteran receiver JaVonta Payton

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NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Kentucky Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps a little lost in all of the departures from Tennessee this year was the addition of veteran receiver JaVonta Payton, who comes over from Mississippi State. Payton finally lands in Knoxville after being recruited three different times by three different staffs.

Butch Jones first offered Payton back in 2016, then Jeremy Pruitt offered him out of JUCO in 2019. Josh Heupel finally closed the deal this spring, adding Payton to the roster as a transfer.

“Just watching him, strength and condition, he’s fast, he’s explosive, he’s got a natural set of hands.” Heupel said during SEC media days. “I really feel like he’s got an opportunity to compete and earn a spot and be a difference maker for us this fall.”

Payton started three games for Mississippi State in 2020, making appearances in nine games. He put together his best game against LSU, catching six passes for 122 yards. The 6-1, 180 pound senior now gives Tennessee another much needed veteran body, joining Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton.

He comes from another wide open offense, playing for one season under Mike Leach in Starkville. Payton now comes into Josh Heupel’s attack, which is more balanced, but also pass friendly.

“He’s experienced, and I think that’s important too,” Heupel said. “Just that wide receiver room, we have a little bit of age on the top, but we’re really young underneath. So his experience, having played in this league, I think is important for us and was an important piece for us to add this spring.”

Second year players like Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway will be looking to make a big leap, while Andison Coby and Walker Merrill join the program looking to crack the rotation.

Heupel will lean heavily on guys like Tillman and Jones though, who have big opportunities this fall to put up some nice numbers. Add Payton to that group, who could really shine with a 6-foot-1 frame and speed to burn down the field.

“With JaVonta, older guy, veteran and stuff,” Jones said. “And, you know, working out with him, really I didn’t know he was gonna be as tall as he was, but he’s really explosive and also fast and has like a big catch radius.

“Working with that guy, he has something to prove. I have something to prove. We all have something to prove. So we talk, and how we’re gonna be better with the younger guys and just take a step forward with this program to have the season I know we can have.”