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Tennessee Football: Vols have a clear route to replace 2022 WRs stars

Most teams would understandably flinch and perhaps even develop a long-term twitch had they just lost the Biletnikoff Award winner, whose recipient is voted the top receiver in college football. Not Tennessee football. One would hardly notice that the Vols lost former wideout Jalin Hyatt to the NFL had it not been for Hyatt continually turning in preseason camp highlights for the New York Giants.

Yet the Vols do have to replace Hyatt, who was a one-man wrecking crew, almost always from the slot receiver position. That, along with UT receiver Velus Jones’ production in 2021, has made the slot position in Tennessee’s offense one of the most coveted roles in all of college football. For now, it remains to be seen just how third-year coach Josh Heupel will manage that role.

The first choice is simple: turn over the position to one player and watch him flourish as Hyatt did last season. The second choice is more difficult: rotate sophomore Squirrel White and highly touted transfer Dont’e Thornton in the slot receiver role and see who is best at the position. Then, the Vols can choose one to play more often or at least know which player performs the best in certain scenarios and plays. Then, there’s a third option. The Vols can play more four wide receiver-sets to take advantage of more receiver depth than the Vols have at tight end after former Vol Princeton Fant moved onto the NFL.

Let’s not forget that the Vols also have to replace Cedric Tillman, who was a threat when he was on the field even though he was injured for much of the 2022 season. Ramel Keyton should be ready to pick up some slack. The senior came into his own with some daft playmaking last season when Tillman was out.

Keyton, however, can only do so much. There is likely no player on Tennessee’s roster that is currently a better NFL prospect and he’s certainly the Vols most gifted, all-around receiver.
 
“The special thing about Bru is he’s always carried himself that way, right?” Pope said of McCoy’s maturity. “When you had Cedric (Tillman), Jalin (Hyatt) and those guys in that room, Bru still carried himself that way … The guys in the room have always respected him. When guys leave, and they go to the next level, it’s an easy transition for a kid like that.
 
“He’s a great leader. He’s truly an alpha. He is going to come to work every single day, and when he’s not going, he’s the biggest cheerleader on the sideline. He’s everything you want in that group, but him and some of those older guys that are leading, they do a great job of helping our young guys come along and learn how we do things.”

McCoy must have learned the “cheerleading” part from Tillman. Perhaps that was necessary after McCoy’s entrance to UT was slowed by an NCAA inquiry into his transfer from Southern California. Perhaps that was because McCoy was banged up last year at times as well. Fortunately for the Vols, Keyton was there as Hyatt was lightning up the scoreboard.

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“At some point guys start to make it about the group,” Tennessee receivers coach Kelsey Pope said. “You see Ramel, and he’s naturally a quiet kid, but you see him going to coach other guys on the side, even when he’s tired. He just came off the field, but he wants to go coach other guys when they come off to the sideline. He’s willing to stay after with the younger guys and help them get transitioned and things like that with the playbook. 

“You just see selfless acts like that. You see him serve others. I think for a while now he’s come on for us. Again, I think that started off the field and I think that translated to Saturdays. Now, you guys see what you see out of him.”

The Vols completed their sixth practice of preseason camp on Wednesday. Tennessee will hold its first full scrimmage of fall camp on Thursday.

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