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Tennessee Football: WR Dont’e Thornton’s versatility at receiver is a preseason gem

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Kelsey Pope’s first season as Tennessee’s receiver coach went quite swimmingly. Pope produced the Biletnikoff Award winner as college football’s top overall receiver and managed a crew that was frequently slowed by injury – although you had to look hard to see it.

The receiving corp was pretty simple last season heading into fall camp – other than Bru McCoy’s delayed transfer from Southern California. The Vols were ready to line up Cedric Tillman as their best receiver – until he got hurt. That meant McCoy had to play almost immediately. So did Ramel Keyton since the Vols were down one wide receiver. Both did fine. However, that Jalin Hyatt guy nabbed the top trophy in the nation and almost set as many records as he produced yards last season. Now, the Vols have assessed the position.

First, there isn’t an overhaul in order. McCoy and Keyton are still around and the Vols will return Squirrel White after a sensational freshman season. The question is whether or not White will own the position or share it. Most think Dont’e Thornton transferred from Oregon to fill in Hyatt’s old position considering the two are both elite speedsters with good size. That also means Thornton can be good at more than one receiver position.

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“We are working him in different spots,” Pope said. “We are doing a good job of trying to use his skill set to put him in some different situations. Just his growth the most was getting in here and learning what we do, learning how we operate on the field and in the building. 

“There is a work ethic. I think that has been brought on by the players. It is expected here now. So, with him learning to play ball, with him getting in here and creating habits, he’s fit right in with these guys and has done a great job so far.”

More than an athlete?

If Thornton mixes in with Tennessee incumbent offensive players and succeeds this season, there’s a reason why. He was chosen, partly, because of his ability to fit inside the Vols’ team culture.

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”I think that’s a huge reason why we got the kid, I really do,” Pope said. “I think when recruiting, you find things about kids that are important to them. I think you have to sell those points. One of the reasons we got him is our relatability as coaches and the players. He came here and he fit right in with the players. 

“To me, that’s a seamless transition because when you’re working hard at a common goal, when that environment is comfortable for you to work hard in, it’s easier for me to give it everything I’ve got. When I’m worried about who’s around or I’m uncomfortable with the people around me, it’s going to be that much harder for me to really strain. So, Dont’e has come in, and he’s like gel, and he’s been a glue guy for our group. They all crack jokes and they’re on social media together. It’s like he’s been here the whole time almost.”

No Kid Keyton

Keyton hasn’t been at UT as long as Neyland Stadium, but he’s been around awhile because of Covid and a redshirt season. Keyton stepped on campus in 2019 as a freshman, was never considered one of the Vols’ top receivers, but has continued to make clutch plays when necessary.

He has become a great person,” Pope said. “He’s become a more mature kid. He’s become more accountable and he cares about football. He’s become a way better teammate. 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 just to catch it for us. This offseason, he’s done a good job of homing in on technique and more of the intermediate underneath game. He’s done a great job for us, and we look forward to him continuing to lead our group.”

Keyton may be the most experienced receiver in Tennessee’s system. However, it’s obvious who the Vols’ coaches want their leader to be. Fortunately, McCoy seems built for a leadership role.

“Yeah, I think that’s been a natural transition for him,” Pope said. “The special thing about Bru is he’s always carried himself that way, right? When you had Cedric, when you had Jalin and those guys in that room, Bru still carried himself that way.”

The most significant concern about McCoy may be his ability to control his in-game emotions, which seemed challenging at times last season.

No Bull

“He’s a California guy on the outside,” Pope said of McCoy, who is from Los Angeles, “but on the inside, he’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve been around. I think some of that came naturally with Bru. He came here wanting to prove himself. You have to fight a fine line when you’re that type of player. There’s a duality, right? I want to be aggressive, and I want to be urgent, but I can’t press, right? When he got some of those situations last year, he’s like a bull in a china shop. 

“I think this year he’s able to take some of that load off to still be accountable, but you see him play a lot more smoothly. He isn’t as tense because he’s seen a year in, he’s got an expectation and what we do and what this league is, and he’s been awesome for us.”

Chemistry and Comedy

McCoy and Keyton certainly seem to have their outside receiver spots locked up. However, with Thornton seeing time at multiple positions and a proven, young slot receiver on the roster, the all-important slot position for Tennessee’s offense is a bit influx, particularly with White. Despite the ambiguity as to where he might play, there’s plenty of optimism about White’s upcoming season.

”Yeah, he’s awesome,” Pope said. ”He’s turned into a little bit of a comedian. He and (quarterback) Joe Milton were a new duo this summer. That was new to me, but seeing him open up and be more talkative and his personality come out, that’s only better for the rest of the room. 

White has mentioned that he and Milton have developed a very strong bond. He’s even compared the two to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who once had a strong bond, but not so much anymore since Jordan’s son has reportedly been dating Pippen’s ex-wife. No matter. All that doesn’t bother the squirrelly one.

“Squirrel is a vibrant light on and off the field. When he’s around the guys, everybody lights up. When he’s on the field, it’s contagious,” Pope said. “Everybody’s willing to play hard. Seeing that personality, (him) showing the room has been awesome, man really good.”

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