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Heupel talks Dont’e Thornton’s injury, role moving forward

Tennessee really needs this guy.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

A few things haven’t played out like we thought so far in Tennessee’s 2023 football season, one of which being the emergence of wide receiver Dont’e Thornton. The big-bodied speedster who transferred in from Oregon seemed like a natural fit in the Tennessee offense, but injuries have plagued his progress so far in Knoxville.

Thornton missed the South Carolina game and played sparingly against Texas A&M last weekend. This following time that he missed in both spring and fall camps.

Tennessee could certainly use him, especially now with Bru McCoy sidelined for the rest of the year. Chas Nimrod got the start against the Aggies in place of McCoy with Thornton still limited.

“We were able to get him going a little bit last week during the course of practice,” Josh Heupel said this week. “He got some action last Saturday, but the plan is to continue to have him increase his role and what he’s doing. He’s a young guy that missed a bunch of time in the spring. And he missed a bunch of time in training camp. Hadn’t had a lot of opportunities just to get on the practice field within the scope of what we’re doing.”

The former four-star recruit emerged late in 2022 for Oregon, stringing together a couple of nice games. He worked both outside and at the slot for Tennessee since arriving, but injuries have kept him from showing us much on the field to this point.

The 6-5, 214 pound receiver has just seven catches on the season, totalling 89 yards. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see his raw talent, however.

“He’s only going to continue to get better,” Heupel continued. “A kid that’s grown in his confidence and understanding of what we’re doing. I love his energy in the building and on the practice field. And again, I believe he’s got a great future. And we’re going to need him this week, but we’re going to need him throughout the course of the season, too.”

Thornton, a junior, has a clear path ahead of him to finish 2023 strong. Tennessee obviously needs him, but getting him back to full strength is the key.

We’ll see if he’s able to go on Saturday afternoon against Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).