Tennessee will return their top receiver from last year, but will lose two key veteran starters. Josh Heupel and Kodi Burns will be banking on development, looking to make gains from year one to year two in Knoxville.
We know who will be on top of the depth chart at wide receiver, but from there, it’s a bit murky. Let’s take a closer look.
WR1: Cedric Tillman
Tillman will return to his role as the top dog in the Tennessee passing attack, looking to build on a breakout season in 2021. The former overlooked recruit out of Las Vegas showed off his size and speed, finally out of the shadows of Josh Palmer and others before him. Josh Heupel’s electric offense showing up in town didn’t hurt.
Tillman was the first Tennessee receiver to top 1,000 yards since Justin Hunter back in 2012. Odds are, he’s going to do that again and then some as a senior with Hendon Hooker back under center.
WR2: Jalin Hyatt
Now is where the fun begins. Without JaVonta Payton and Velus Jones Jr. in the picture, a ton of snaps are open for the taking. Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor was set to fill the WR2 role, but his flip to Texas has the Volunteers back to square one. The good news is that they have plenty of talented options.
Hyatt started the season as a top option in the offense, but quickly fell out of the lineup following an injury against Pitt. From there, he was a reserve receiver, playing sparingly. 2022 will be his time to shine, perhaps emerging like Tillman did last season. His speed and ball skills could certainly be a lot for defenses to handle in this offensive attack.
Slot: Jimmy Calloway
Now for the guessing game. I’m not sure if Tennessee will have a true slot, or simply move the pieces around to try and create matchups. Hyatt could see time here too, as could Tillman.
In the little we saw of Calloway last year, he was able to make plays in space, particularly in that Pitt game. His short area quickness, burst and speed should eventually find the field regularly, and this is my best guess of where for now.
WR4: Ramel Keyton
Keyton is a bit of a forgotten man in the Tennessee offense, but he did show up in certain spots last year. Now with two veterans out of his way on the depth chart, it’s entirely possible that Keyton can finally emerge as a starter. Calloway and Hyatt definitely offer more athleticism, but Keyton’s 6-3 frame could give the Volunteers another big body in the redzone.
Tennessee welcomes Cam Miller, Kaleb Webb, Chas Nimrod and Squirrel White this spring. I probably wouldn’t expect to hear much from that group, but it’s possible that one or two of them grow into depth roles. White’s athletic ability and Webb’s size/speed combination probably have them in the best spots to see early time if the opportunity presents itself. Junior Jimmy Holiday will also be a factor for this reserve role.
Slot2: Walker Merrill
Merrill appeared in nine games as a true freshman, catching five passes for 52 yards on the year. He’s a true slot receiver and will be competing for time with Calloway and Hyatt and should have every opportunity to carve out a role during spring and fall camp. The former mid-state prospect was a high three-star recruit, and could surprise some people in 2022.
Tight End 1A: Princeton Fant
Tight End 1B: Jacob Warren
Tennessee’s two veteran starting tight ends are back, giving the Volunteers some stability at the position entering year two. It’s easy to discount that, considering the small production in the passing attack, but getting two veterans back in the blocking scheme and passing attack is a big deal.
Warren’s 6-6 frame hauled in three touchdowns last season. He and Fant combined for 399 yards last season, mainly used in the short game to help move the sticks. Expect similar production from both in 2022.
TE3: Miles Campbell
Campbell came to Tennessee as a four-star prospect with an outside shot at some early playing time. However, his first season was limited to special teams duty. Campbell is a ‘move’ tight end that has some ability to work out of the slot. With uncertainty at that spot, I’m interested to see if Campbell can steal some snaps there.
TE4: Julian Nixon
Nixon is probably going to get another year of seasoning, once again buried on the depth chart. The converted wide receiver is another former four-star prospect, listed at 6-3, 245 pounds. I’m interested to see what he can become, but we probably won’t find out until 2023, barring injuries.