No Cedric Tillman and no Jalin Hyatt, Joe Milton was tasked with beating Clemson with a new group of wide receivers. We knew they were plenty capable, but replacing all of that production over the last two seasons was still a daunting task.
And yet, Tennessee had no issues. The offense started fairly quickly, hit a bit of a lull, then exploded late to put the Tigers away. And true freshman Squirrel White was a big reason why.
We had a suspicion coming in, as White had been progression his way into the receiver rotation. Due to injuries, Squirrel had seen his snaps increase late in the year. On Friday night against Clemson, he got the full starter treatment.
Milton peppered him with shorter passes to open, as Josh Heupel opted to go away from the run game to start. Instead, White got the ball on the perimeter a few times to start, with a chance to make something happen.
And then this happened. Squirrel hauled in the first big play of the day, setting up the Volunteers to take a 14-0 lead.
Joe Milton made throwing 60 yards look effortless pic.twitter.com/PqVJl7qkCd— Footballism (@FootbaIIism) December 31, 2022
How much does that remind you of Jalin Hyatt? That’s the role White played in the Orange Bowl, and that’s the role he’ll be in during the 2023 season.
Squirrel explained his mindset going in when he learned that Hyatt and Tillman wouldn’t be playing in the game.
“Yeah, I just like went to Bru, Ramel and just stayed in the building extra and just worked on my game and stuff — extra film — I knew I had to step up,” White said after the game. “I feel like we’re the best, all of us just come to every day and just ball out and stuff.”
White came back to catch a touchdown pass to end the third quarter — a 14 yard strike from Milton.
Joe Milton to Squirrel White for the Tennessee touchdown. pic.twitter.com/USKMtfSzFC— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 31, 2022
For as much as the opt-outs were talked about, they actually let us get a nice preview of what’s potentially to come in 2023. The receiving core that you saw out there on Friday night is the same one you’ll see next season, and after Milton’s performance there, it’s tough to imagine him not winning the starting gig.
Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White are a group that you can win with, as Tennessee proved in the Orange Bowl. The staff might add another body to this room from the portal, but the Volunteers certainly have a nice foundation put down for next season.