Next man up is a mantra that’s repeated often and is far too often disingenuous. There’s typically a reason why the guy behind the starter isn’t on the field; he’s not as talented as the player who just went down.
But in the case of Tennessee WR Dont’e Thornton, that’s not the case. At least not physically.
Thornton is big. 6’5” 214-pounds big. He’s fast. 24.3 miles per hour fast (according to him). Those are tools that few coaches are going to be able to go to pull from the bench.
But Josh Heupel has that luxury. With the dreadful season-ending injury to Bru McCoy against South Carolina, the opportunity is wide open for Thornton to step in and take on a bigger role in the offense.
Thornton came over from Oregon with plenty of hype this offseason. However, with just 7 catches for 89 yards through 4 games played for UT (he missed last week against South Carolina), he’s yet to live up to the hype he brought with him from the West Coast.
With his size, he has the ability to play on the outside, even though he typically plays in the slot. However, the responsibilities from the slot and outside spots are significantly different. The blocking assignments on the edge are critical in Josh Heupel’s offense, and McCoy was exceptional at executing them. Outside receivers have to be able to get off of press coverage routinely, and with McCoy’s upper body strength, he was typically able to handle that as well. That’s of course to say nothing about the different routes for each position in Heupel’s offense.
But it makes a lot of sense to consider using Thornton on the outside, aside from just his physical makeup. Although he’s been listed as a co-starter in the slot with Squirrel White on the depth chart, the latter is undoubtedly the team’s best slot receiver, who delivered on Saturday with 9 catches for 104 yards. White is surely stepping into a bigger role in the offense and needs to be on the field in the slot full time.
Thornton gives the Vols a big and fast option in the deep passing game. He can run by guys with the best of them. He beat his defender on a go route from the slot against Florida for a 43-yard gain.
Now, it will be interesting to see if he gets that opportunity on the outside, starting with Texas A&M. Heupel has talked about Thornton alongside Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb among players who will have an opportunity with McCoy done for the season.
If Heupel isn’t going to switch Thornton away from the slot, then that would appear to leave Nimrod - who has been listed as McCoy’s backup on the depth chart - as the next in line to start on the outside. That would also appear to leave Thornton fighting with White for snaps in the slot.
However, with a sizeable hole in the passing game now open, the opportunity couldn’t be bigger for Thornton to step in and make a bigger impact when he is on the field, at one position or another.