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Tennessee Football: Who will be the next dominant Vols receiver?

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Tennessee’s football coaches have one goal that should trump all others during the offseason. Find the next one.

No, I’m not talking about the next quarterback, the next EDGE rusher or the next overlooked leader in the secondary as Hendon Hooker, Byron Young and Trevon Flowers were, respectively, last season in 2022. The “next one” that I’m referring to is the next receiver that can master the slot position. So far, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has made that look easy. Velus Jones did it in 2021. Jalin Hyatt did it in 2022. The slot position isn’t just important; it’s vital to Heupel’s offense when it has run at its best.

So far, spring practice has been rather predictable. Sophomore Squirrel White and transfer Dont’e Thornton were supposed to vie to be the next slot star before camp began. Nothing has changed as the Vols begin to come down the final stretch of spring camp. Preparing both players in one session of spring camp is doable, according to receiver coach Kelsey Pope.

“Absolutely, you can get both of those guys at the same time,” Pope said this week. “I think another thing that you have to be conscious of is having guys being able to play multiple spots because you want your best players on the field. Whether it is those two are in that group or whoever, you have to have some guys play multiple spots. It allows you to do that.” 

That’s a bit different. For the most part, Tennessee receivers have been solely focused on wideout or slot receiver. Pope hinted that the Vols could run a four-receiver set this fall. We’ll see. Tennessee hasn’t done much of that in Heupel’s time at UT and the Vols still have tight end Jacob Warren as a proven threat. It seems unlikely that Warren will get pulled off the field with any regularity. However, if the Vols don’t have a second tight end capable of rotating with Warren, then Tennessee could go four wide.

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“I think ultimately that comes down to matchups,” Pope said. “If we feel like we have a better matchup with a tight end, we have guys that can go in and fill that void. We feel like getting four wide receivers…we have multiple guys in the room that can fill that void. When you’re an offensive-minded coach, it’s not about what we want to do as coaches. It’s about how we can put our players in the position to be successful. That’s going to be our method here and until the end of it.”

So if the Vols stay with the three-receiver look, who has the inside track for the most slot receiver snaps? Pope isn’t tipping his hand when it comes to Thornton, who is 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, and White, who is 5-8 and 170 pounds, according to Pope. However, the suspects at slot have plenty in common besides size.

“Both of those guys have the ability to run,” Pope said. “Squirrel is more of a vertical guy. Donte’ can run, he adds a little bit more lateral, little bit more on the line of scrimmage. Both of those guys have a unique skillset that we are going to have to take advantage of this year and it will help us win.” 

Pope may have not found the “next one” just yet. However, he seems well on his way.

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