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Tennessee looking for stability behind Cedric Tillman at wide receiver

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

One of the biggest questions needing an answer this spring for Tennessee football comes at the receiver position. We know how important the receivers were to the overall equation for the Volunteers in Josh Heupel’s first season, so replacing guys like Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton is certainly a big deal.

The situation puts pressure on guys like Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Calloway and Ramel Keyton to really emerge over the next few weeks. The good news for Tennessee is that Cedric Tillman will return, steadying the ship along with senior quarterback Hendon Hooker.

After that though, it’s a bit of a mystery.

“Little bit like last spring in that we had some young guys that had to grow and become really strong players,” Josh Heupel said on Tuesday. “Cedric, obviously, his experience, his ownership inside of the wide receiver room — critical and big for us as a position, as a unit on offense and as a program. Expect him to take another big jump in his playing development as well. Outside of him, there’s a bunch of guys that need to grow, and I thought they had really strong offseasons in the first phase of what we do.”

Tillman emerged last season, turning into Tennessee’s first 1,000 yard receiver since Justin Hunter in 2012. He’s eyeing becoming a top receiver prospect for the 2023 draft, while those behind him look to follow in his footsteps.

Hyatt is the obvious pick. He seemed to have a starting spot locked up early last season before falling to injury, and then Payton emerged. It was tough sledding for Hyatt to find the field after that, but the 4.3 speedster now gets a fresh start with a thinner depth chart ahead of him.

Calloway had a similar season, flashing hard and then falling out of the rotation. The Pittsburgh game showed us what he was capable of, and we’re sure to see more of that in 2022.

And then there’s Ramel Keyton, who just hasn’t quite put the pieces together during his time in Knoxville. However, he’s now got a shot to play in a pretty big way as a senior.

“They’ve put themselves in a great position,” Heupel said. “I thought there were a lot of positives today in their ability to operate within our tempo, get lined up, for them understanding scheme versus coverage. There was a lot of really positives today. They’re going to need continued growth and development. These next 14 days after today are going to be big for their development.”

Jimmy Holiday and Walker Merrill will be factors in this equation as well. Tennessee will also welcome four freshman from the class of 2022 — Chas Nimrod, Cam Miller, Kaleb Webb and Squirrel White.

While the receiver spot isn’t exactly a concern for this season, Tennessee will be relying on a good amount of guys who haven’t done it before over the course of an entire season.

If I had to guess, a Tillman-Hyatt-Calloway lineup would get my vote — and it would be pretty potent with Heupel and Hooker pulling the strings.