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Tennessee WRs aren’t a household name for the Vols just yet

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Tennessee’s receivers were supposed to roll into the season and dominate. So far, they’ve struggled to maintain any semblance of the Vols’ explosive offense from last season. Of course, that’s not all their fault, but quarterback Joe Milton can’t take all the blame.

Tennessee receiver Dont’e Thornton was one of the most talked about transfers in the country when he chose the Vols over several schools, including Arkansas, Auburn and Miami. He was supposed to pick up where former Vol Jalin Hyatt left off. That was a tough ask. Hyatt won the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the nation last season. Thornton has five catches for 65 yards and no touchdowns in three games, two of which were awful opponents. That’s not up to expectations, and I’m not even talking about fan expectations. 

Here is what Tennessee’s Sports Information Department had to say about Thornton in his bio: “A speedy transfer wide receiver poised to become a household name in the SEC”

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Well, he’s still speedy at least.

“He is a freak athletically,” offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said during his press conference on Tuesday. “Let’s start off with that. His size and speed combination. What we do is different and sometimes there’s a learning curve. You’ve seen it before. You saw Jalin Hyatt, year one to year two, was different.”

Perhaps Thornton can be a household name in 2024. The college football world is waiting. Despite all the hype, Thornton started just three games for the Ducks last season, mainly because of an injury to starter Chase Cota, who was knocked out of action against California in late October. Thornton surely wanted to be a household name last season in Eugene. Instead, he caught just 17 passes for 366 yards and one touchdown in 2022. Hyatt nearly did that against Alabama last season. Still, Halzle believes Thornton is growing into his role.

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“What I love about Dont’e is his attitude hasn’t shifted,” Halzle said of the junior. “He hasn’t gone into, ‘Well, I’m not getting the production I want so now I’m mad’. All he’s doing is trying to figure out ‘How do I get more production? What do I do? What do I need to learn? What more do I need to watch?’ 

“He’s been meeting extra, like as much as anybody, like a freshman. That’s what great about him and I expect his productivity to continue to grow as we go through the season.”

It had better considering Thornton is averaging about 22 yards per game receiving. Hyatt averaged 106 per game last season. However, it’s unfair to pile on just one player.

Thornton isn’t the only Tennessee receiver that hasn’t lived up to their billing, albeit it certainly isn’t all their fault. Senior Bru McCoy was supposed to dominate games and defensive backs with his size and strength. He has caught 12 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown.

Fellow senior Ramel Keyton was supposed to up his game to another level and be a rock that Milton could depend on. Keyton has caught 11 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Considering the Vols’ struggles across the board on offense, there is no shame in either of those stat lines. The same should be said for sophomore Squirrel White, who has caught 13 passes for 143 yards. Again, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, one must factor in that the Vols played Virginia and Austin Peay in the trio of games that led to that production.

“This is very much a rhythm offense with what we do, how we operate with the tempo, with the splits,” Halzle said. “You’re still seeing Joe has played a decent amount of football here, so has Bru, Ramel (and) Squirrel, but they haven’t been a unit for that long, and if you think back to a couple of years ago, the same thing, that unit just takes a little bit to get it where it needs to be. 

“Now obviously we are always pushing to make that happen as fast as possible. You want it to be Week One, and it to just light on fire the rest of the season, but that group has pushed really hard to become a unit, because that’s what it has to be to operate efficiently. It was still a bunch of guys still learning each other early in the season. I think what you saw was a group that wasn’t affected by the moment because they have played in those types of moments before, and they were able to operate at a really high level.”

When was that? Perhaps Tennessee’s receivers graded out at a high level when UT’s coaches watched video of the Florida game. However, I don’t see a household name quite yet.

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