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Going forward, Tennessee should continue to feature Squirrel White

White was a focus of the gameplan against South Carolina, and it paid off.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The way Tennessee ended the season in 2022, you figured Squirrel White was a lock for a big season. Armed with Joe Milton’s big arm and Tennessee’s vertical offense, White flashed pretty big at the end of last year. However, that downfield magic hasn’t been there so far in 2023.

Finally, on Saturday night against South Carolina, Squirrel got loose deep and made a fantastic grab to set up a touchdown. That’s the element that has been missing from this offense — something we need to see more of going forward.

More than that, there was a clear point of emphasis to get White involved early on. It was mainly in the short game, using him in motion to set up easy matchups. Quick throws, screens, even a handoff, the offensive staff wanted the ball in Squirrel’s hands.

“Just continues to get better,” Josh Heupel said after the win. “Just extremely confident and comfortable out there. He operates extremely efficiently. Joe has great confidence in him, made big-time competitive play on the deep ball early in the first quarter. That gets us going. Just an unbelievable job all night.”

White caught all nine of his targets, totalling 104 yards on the night. Maybe it didn’t quite look like we all thought it would, but there was a clear emphasis to get the electric sophomore involved. Now with Bru McCoy sidelined for the rest of the year, White is likely to be needed even more. Tennessee is clearly going to lean on their rushing attack, but keeping defenses honest with quick hitters to the fastest player on the field can certainly open things up too, dragging defenders out of the box.

The 5-10, 165 pound receiver turned heads from day one of camp last season, proving that he was ready to play in the SEC. Against South Carolina, we really got our first chance to see him as the featured piece of the offense, which is something that will likely continue without McCoy in the lineup.

“First day on the practice field where we’re wearing pads, in helmet and shoulder pads, there’s a lot of physical drills that we do out on the perimeter,” Heupel said when asked about White’s toughness. “Lot destruction, tackling, perimeters drill, whatever he was when he got here on campus, it was all in the fight, right from day one. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s gonna stick his nose on people, he’s gonna play great fundamentals. He’s been that way from the jump.”

The Tennessee receiver pecking order will be interesting to monitor from here. White and Keyton have starting roles, obviously. However, Dont’e Thornton is off to a slow start and the staff clearly likes Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod quite a bit. All three are likely to get a decent amount of playing time going forward. Can any of the three separate from the rest? Is it as easy as plugging in Thornton? We’ll find out in two weeks.

But if Saturday is any indication, Squirrel will be the main target moving forward.