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Tennessee Football: Vols Return Offensive Talent That Could Lead The Nation

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Tennessee led the nation in scoring and total yards last season.

It will be difficult for the Vols to match those numbers, having lost star quarterback Hendon Hooker and electrifying receiver Jalin Hyatt to the NFL.

But the Vols return plenty of offensive talent to rank among the nation’s leaders on offense. In fact, the Vols might have as much big-play ability at the skill positions as any team in the SEC. And that includes Georgia and Alabama.

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Here’s a breakdown of UT’s offensive talent.

QUARTERBACK

Joe Milton has the strongest arm in college football. He can throw an orange 110 yards, a basketball out of the arena and a football about 85 yards.

If Anthony Richardson can be the No. 4 pick in the NFL draft, why not Milton?

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Milton proved in 2022 that his decision making and deep-ball accuracy is much better than it was in 2021. He has learned from Hooker and from his offensive-minded head coach, Josh Heupel.

If Milton can continue throwing darts on target, gain touch on his shorter throws and read defenses, there’s no reason he can’t put up eye-popping numbers.

I don’t expect Milton to complete 69.6% of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27-2 like Hooker had a year ago, but I do think he will surpass 3,300 passing yards and 30 touchdowns.

Milton doesn’t have the running ability, pocket presence or escapability of Hooker, which means he isn’t as likely to convert as many third-and-5s as Hooker did. But he can be a powerful runner and he has better straight-line speed than Hooker.

In two seasons at Tennessee, Milton has 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

I asked Milton if that speaks to his decision making.

“It speaks to my coaching,’’ Milton said.

By season’s end, Milton could be more productive than any SEC quarterback not named Jayden Daniels, KJ Jefferson or Spencer Rattler.

RUNNING BACK

Tennessee doesn’t have a running back that will compete for the title of SEC’s Best.

But in Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, it has two running backs that combined for over 1,600 yards and scored 25 touchdowns last year. They’ve combined for over 2,800 yards the last two seasons — no other SEC team can claim that.

It also has an explosive sophomore in Dylan Sampson, who rushed for 378 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Expect him to get more carries this season.

The Vols also have a talented freshman running back in Cam Seldon, who, at 6-2, 222 pounds, could be a powerful short yardage back who also possesses speed.

Wright led UT in rushing last season with 875 yards. Considering Small’s injury history, I expected Wright to get the majority of carries and I expect him to crack 1,000 yards. He will rank among the top six running backs in the SEC.

Not many SEC teams have a 1-2 punch like Wright and Small or go four deep at the position.

I expect the running backs to combine for more than 2,000 yards this season and have Tennessee ranked among the top five rushing teams in the SEC.

RECEIVERS (including tight end)

Tennessee has four receivers capable of a 40-catch season: Bru McCoy (52 last season), Ramel Keyton (31), Squirrel White (30) and Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton.

That’s not to say Hyatt and Cedric Tillman won’t be missed.

But it does suggest the Vols are close to returning to being called Wide Receiver U.

McCoy is the bell cow. He could reach 1,000 yards and hit double digits for touchdowns. He has the frame (6-3, 221), athleticism and hands to be elite.

White has elite quickness. Few can cover him one-on-one and I doubt anyone wants to gamble on playing bump-and-run coverage against the squirrel-quick wideout. White can burn you with a bubble screen on a go route.

Keyton doesn’t impress you athletically, but he is consistent. He’s the guy you think might get beat out, but no one can. He had 31 catches for 562 yards last year. He leads UT’s returning receivers with 18.1 yards per catch and five touchdowns.  

At 6-foot-5, Thornton is a big target with blazing speed. He averaged 20.8 yards per catch in two seasons at Oregon. He could be a mismatch against a smaller corner.

At tight end, Tennessee has two proven commodities and an extraordinarily gifted freshman. Jacob Warren is in his sixth year. He’s a solid blocker and pass catcher.

McCallan Castles, a transfer from UC-Davis, might be the best pass catcher among the tight ends.

Freshman Ethan Davis might be the most athletic among the tight ends.

There is no Brock Bowers in the right end room, but there is talent and depth.  

In summary, Tennessee ranks among the top four in the SEC at quarterback, running back and receiver/tight end.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Vols will average 46 points per game, but exceeding 40 per game is on the table.

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