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Heupel: Jalin Hyatt has made a ‘huge jump’

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

No more Velus Jones Jr., no more JaVonta Payton — it’s no secret that Tennessee is looking for a new starter in the slot and on the outside opposite of Cedric Tillman. The most logical choice was always Jalin Hyatt, who played sporadically throughout the 2021 season.

The rising junior has speed to burn and seems like a natural fit in Josh Heupel’s system. In fact, it seemed that way last year in fall camp. Hyatt began the season as a starter, but suffered an injury early in the season against Pittsburgh. From there, his playing time was inconsistent, but he was able to make the occasional splash.

Now with the depth chart clearing out in front of him, it’s Hyatt’s time to shine. Apparently early on in the spring, he’s taking advantage of the opportunity.

“Jalin has made a huge jump,” Josh Heupel said on Saturday. “Different mindset. Different focus. Because of that, different work habits. Unbelievable offseason, strength and conditioning before we got to competing on the grass.”

The former four-star receiver prospect made some noise as a true freshman, as Jeremy Pruitt’s staff utilized his downfield speed. It just never quite came together for Hyatt as a sophomore, but Tennessee is going to need him as a junior.

“He’s continuing to get better, playing in competitive situations,” Heupel said. “Understanding how to do the things we want to do at the wide receiver position. Playing without the football in his hands. He’s become a much more physical football player since he’s changed his body. And those two things go together, hand-in-hand, gaining confidence. That shows up in the way that he’s played.”

Hyatt caught 21 passes for 226 yards and two scores, actually taking a step back from his freshman production. However, the 6-0, 180 pound junior now has a clear path to a starting role opposite of Cedric Tillman. Jimmy Calloway, Ramel Keyton, Jimmy Holiday, Walker Merrill and a handful of freshmen make up the rest of the wide receiver roster.

To be blunt, Tennessee needs Hyatt to emerge in a big way this season. They need him healthy and ready to bring another element to this offense — and he could be in store for a huge season with Hendon Hooker returning.