Saturday’s game against Texas A&M will serve as the first for Tennessee without starting wide receiver Bru McCoy, who was lost for the year against South Carolina after suffering a brutal ankle injury. The Volunteers were also without Dont’e Thornton on that night, which forced young receivers Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod into action.
Thornton is expected back this weekend, likely set to see time both on the outside and in the slot. However, there’s no way around it at this point — Tennessee is going to be forced to rely heavily on a couple of redshirt freshmen going forward. Webb and Nimrod are a couple of guys that have drawn big praise from the coaching staff during the offseason, and they’re now going to get a chance to show it on the field.
We’ve already seen Webb haul in a touchdown earlier this season, and Nimrod has gotten involved in the offense a handful of times over the past couple of weeks. Now, they have to be ready for all the ins and outs of the offense. That’s going to mean getting involved in the perimeter screen game, both as blockers and runners.
“Offense won’t really change,” Josh Heupel said this week. “Those guys have been involved in perimeter screens where they are the ball carrier, they have been involved where they are the blocker. Offensively, we feel good about their development. They have to practice well, prepare well and get themselves in a position to go play well. We certainly expect that from them, and I know they are excited about the opportunity.”
Another way Tennessee could replace McCoy? The tight ends. Tennessee has two capable ones in Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles, and you saw Warren step up in the redzone against South Carolina. We’ve also seen Halzle get Castles involved in the screen game this year. Expect more of both going forward.
“Both of them have different skill sets,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. “Cali and Jacob are different players, but they’re both highly intelligent. We could move them around, put them in different spots, which we are, and allowing them to try to get some matchups that are favorable for them. Now, when you lose a guy like Bru who was your seasoned guy, it’s like, all right, how do we make this? You don’t just throw one person in and just expect all the production to stay the same. It’s like, how do we make this right? What do we have to do?”
Another potential wildcard here is true freshman Nathan Leacock, another guy that generated some buzz during camp. It would be surprising to see him truly crack the rotation, but he’s now one injury away from seeing legitimate playing time. The 6-3, 209 pound receiver was the 87th overall player in the 2023 recruiting cycle, per 247Sports.
“(Leacock) has a unique skill set of size and speed that, as he’s been working back — he actually had a really good day of practice today, too, which was fun to watch — it’s just been learning our system and going through it,” Halzle said.
Though Thornton is expected to play, if he can’t, you could see Leacock get some run this weekend.
Tennessee has been leaning heavily on their rushing attack through five games. The Volunteers rank seventh in rushing offense in the FBS, putting up 230 yards per game with their trio of backs. However, they’re going to run into one of the top defensive lines in the country on Saturday. Texas A&M ranks eighth against the run, posing a real challenge for the Tennessee offense.
That could force Tennessee to throw the ball more, putting more pressure on these receivers to step up into their new roles.
“I expect all of them to play at a high level,” Heupel said. “We are going to need all of those guys; that will be through the course of Saturday, but also throughout the course of the season. I expect to see all of those guys.”
Tennessee remains a 3.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS on Saturday afternoon.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.