Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman..... Bru McCoy, Squirrel White, Dont’e Thornton — these are all guys that have been featured or will be featured pieces of the Tennessee offense. And there there’s another guy, perhaps a guy that’s not quite as flashy, but a guy that comes to work everyday and brings consistency as a true, classic possession receiver.
Ramel Keyton came to Tennessee with plenty of hype, but it took awhile for the light to come on. Keyton initially committed to Jeremy Pruitt, then stuck around during the dramatic scheme change under Josh Heupel.
From there it took an injury to Cedric Tillman for Keyton to find the field, but when he did, he delivered. Really starting in the Florida game last year, Tennessee slid Keyton into the lineup and never skipped a beat.
“I think it was last spring — we had a guy go down and Ramel kind of transitioned into more of a starter role last spring, and I think it was at that point that when you started to see him play and show what he can really do,” Tennessee receivers coach Kelsey Pope said. “The funny thing about that, life comes full circle, we get to the season and the exact same thing happens. The guy in front of him went down, and he was a reserve, he came in and made a bunch of plays for us in critical situations. I think, man, that’s why it’s so important in practice to push these guys to their limit.”
An iconic play from the 2022 season, Keyton delivered a brilliant diving catch against the Gators to set up Tennessee to score just before halftime. The drive was a pivotal part of the game looking back, setting up the Volunteers to be in control going into the third quarter.
Now with Tillman and Hyatt gone, Keyton is going to step into a bigger role in the offense. We saw that role previewed in the Orange Bowl win against Clemson — a four catch, 76 yard performance that ended with a long touchdown to salt the Tigers away.
“Honestly, Ramel, he’s become a great person,” Pope continued. “Like he’s become a more mature kid. He’s become more accountable and he cares about football. He’s become a way better teammate, and I think that’s translated to him being able to take advantage of some opportunities on the field. He does a great job down the field adjusting to catches for us. This offseason he’s done a good job of honing in on technique and more of the intermediate and underneath game. He’s done a great job for us and we look forward to him continuing to lead our group.”
Keyton, now a senior, will have a different look this fall. The 6-3, 195 pound receiver swapped from No. 80 to No. 9 ahead of fall camp.
“I think sometimes guys need new numbers,” Pope explained. “I’m all about looking good, feeling good, but at the end of the day, we got to get results. If you are wearing 99, and you’re the best player in the country, you’re probably going to be 99. So, Ramel (Keyton) has been awesome with that transition. He hadn’t missed a beat. He looks just like the old number 80 there. He’s improved in some areas. So, I look forward to seeing more from nine on the field.”
Tennessee largely rolled with three receivers last season, but that number appears to be four for 2023. McCoy, White, Thornton and Keyton will form a big time receiver room for Joe Milton, who could be in for a huge final season in Knoxville. Each guy offers something a little different, giving Josh Heupel and Joey Halzle plenty of creative freedom while calling plays.
The Volunteers will get going on September 2nd in Nashville against Virginia.