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Countdown to kickoff — Player showcase: Jalin Hyatt

With key departures at wide receiver, Jalin Hyatt is looking forward to a potential breakout season in 2022

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

Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman are poised to be one of the top returning quarterback-receiver duos in college football in 2022-23. However, with the departures of Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, the Vols have an 1,200 yard-sized hole to fill in their offense, and with the status of Bru McCoy up in the air as of now, a lot of that pressure will fall squarely on the shoulders of Jalin Hyatt.

Adversity, change, and, admittedly, some growing up have defined Jalin Hyatt’s time at Tennessee. Hyatt was a 4-star, top 200 recruit once upon a time who has yet to find his footing in Knoxville, but from the way the coaching staff and Hyatt himself have been talking this offseason, they’re making it a top priority to change that.

Heupel had glowing words when talking about Hyatt’s growth over the last year and a half.

“Even in the middle part of last year, his focus and his attention to detail, he understood that it needed to change...he’s added a ton of size and strength, maturity to his frame,” Heupel said of Hyatt in a presser after practice last week. “I think that’s gained a lot of confidence for him and how he plays with a physical presence, and that can be in one-on-one matchups, blocking on the perimeter; it can be the way he presents himself and finishes plays when he has the ball in his hands, too.” The junior receiver has been reported to have added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, and adding more to his frame with already blazing speed can only put more pressure on defensive backs in the one-on-one’s that Heupel’s system thrived on last year.

Hyatt was recruited as a speedster, and he initially committed to Virginia Tech in early 2019. Ironically enough, his quarterback there was set to be Hendon Hooker, but similarly to Hooker, Hyatt found himself in Knoxville in the end. Despite Tennessee’s forgettable 2020 season, Hyatt showed flashes of what he could develop into, catching 20 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. He was unable to build on any of that last season, however, and he found himself firmly behind Tillman, Jones Jr., and Payton on the depth chart.

With the coaching change and scheme change shifting over to Josh Heupel’s high octane style of play, every fan, expert, and analyst knew how much the Vols offense would immediately improve with the talent already in place. Hyatt also knew that, too.

“I had to look back on last season on what I did wrong...when we were going throughout that process when coach Pruitt got fired and coach Heupel came in, I just got complacent,” Hyatt said earlier this year following spring practice. “...when you’re not out there with your guys every snap, it gets to you, and my confidence wasn’t where it was at last year (2020).”

Hyatt was very candid in his short presser, talking about how Velus Jones Jr. served as a mentor to him and how the now Chicago Bears receiver continues to help him.

“I was struggling with it last year and he wasn’t. I had to take a step back, just look at how Velus runs his routes, just a lot of things that he’s done here at Tennessee, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ll text Velus every time, show him film, and he’s been helping me through this process.”

Hearing that kind of honesty and reflection, accepting responsibility the way Hyatt did for his shortcomings speaks volumes about his character and why he’s become someone the younger receivers on the team now look up to. This kind of rise of a player isn’t foreign to Tennessee. Cedric Tillman went from a guy who hardly made a dent in the Vols offense his first three seasons to a top flight receiver last season. That didn’t happen overnight, and Hyatt sees Tillman as inspiration for his hard work as well.

“He motivates all of us,” Hyatt spoke of Tillman. “The crazy thing is last year when we were doing spring camp and when Coach Heupel got here, he was in here 24/7. Nobody else was. I wasn’t in here. He was, and it just shows what he has accomplished on the field, all the hard work he has done, so that motivated me.”

Hyatt won’t be outworked this time around, and he won’t let failure be an option for him this season. Coaches, teammates, and trainers have noted that Hyatt, similar to Tillman, is around the facilities for hours on end every single day, looking for ways to improve and make an impact for the Vols this season.

Expecting a breakout season is one thing, but earning opportunities and proving your worth is something else. Hyatt has done the latter this offseason in hopes to have the results reflect his hard work. With a lot of question marks circling the receiving corps, Hyatt didn’t let himself get lazy this time around, and he’s ready to take off.