Tennessee is replacing Hendon Hooker this year, likely plugging in the mega-armed Joe Milton in his place. However, they’ll also be replacing their top two receivers from a year ago — including the Biletnikoff Award winner.
Jalin Hyatt opted to leave early for the NFL, while Cedric Tillman saw his eligibility expire. This leaves two holes to fill in the offense, both playing extremely important roles. The good news? Tennessee has already proven that they’re going to be just fine with Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White. That trio dominated the Orange Bowl against Clemson, and the Volunteers actually have a decent amount of talented young prospects behind them.
Just for good measure though, Tennessee added Dont’e Thornton from the transfer portal. The 6-4 receiver is a former high four-star prospect with speed to burn. He’s expected to give Tennessee another dynamic downfield threat, forming a dangerous combination with White.
“He’s long, he’s got great speed, he’s got experience, he’s mature and he’s got great work habits,” Josh Heupel said of Thornton. “He’s a guy that is constantly up here in the meeting room, but also doing things in the indoor and trying to become the best he can be. He’s got some position flexibility, can play inside, can play outside. How quickly he grasps what we do offensively is going to be one of the keys for him as we go through the spring. I’m really excited about who he is and what he’s brought to the table so far.”
Thornton started the week in the slot, learning the position that Jalin Hyatt vacated. Before Hyatt it was Velus Jones Jr., giving you an idea of how productive Thornton could be in 2023. Considering his big frame, you would expect Thornton to also learn to play outside in the offense as well.
Tennessee has a clear top four going into this spring. They’ve got a couple of possession guys in McCoy and Keyton, along with some true speedsters in Thornton and White. Heupel doesn’t like to go deep in his receiver rotation, so you can expect to see plenty of that group this fall.
Can anyone else emerge? Now is the time to do it, and we’ll get an extended look at guys like Chas Nimrod, Kaleb Webb and Nathan Leacock in the Orange and White Game.
“I believe in the young guys we have in our program,” Heupel said. “They have to grow, and then they have to take advantage of their opportunities when they come. I believe in the guys that we have here. We have some vets that have played a lot of football and have played really well. We have some new guys, young guys that are going to get more opportunities here. I believe we’ll have guys that will step up and be able to play at a really high level.”
Nico Iamaleava will undoubtedly be the main attraction come April 15th, but this new look receiver room will be a close second from me. They play such a big role in the offense, so I’m interested to see how a guy like Thornton looks right out of the gates.