Tennessee Football had an easy option to turn to when it lost its highest regarded receiver in 2022. Things aren’t so easy for the Vols this season.
Plugging receiver Bru McCoy into Cedric Tillman’s vacated spot last season was easy when Tillman suffered an ankle injury in September. McCoy, like Tillman, was a big, physical receiver. Being a transfer, McCoy was ready in his fourth season of college football. Now, with McCoy on the bench after suffering an ankle injury against South Carolina and Tillman in the NFL, things get more complicated for the Vols to find a true No.1 receiver – or a receiver that can dictate defensive coverage, like Tillman and McCoy did when they were in the game.
In terms of size, Dont’e Thornton Jr. would seem to be that kind of receiver. He’s 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds. However, he has yet to show the physicality and playmaking ability that would scare opposing secondaries. Thornton was still listed as a slot receiver, and second team in fact, behind Squirrel White. Unless Tennessee Football coach Josh Heupel is being coy, Thornton isn’t the answer to replace McCoy at wideout.
“We will see as he gets back on the field this week,” Heupel said, making sure to not rule anything out. “He has worked at both spots.”
Perhaps. But not last week when Thornton was held out of the South Carolina game with an undisclosed injury. Then, McCoy got hurt. Then a team strength turned into an area to be concerned about.
“Offense won’t really change,” Heupel said during his Monday press conference. “Those guys have been involved in perimeter screens where they are the ball carrier, they have been involved where they are the blocker. Offensively, we feel good about their development. They have to practice well, prepare well and get themselves in a position to go play well. We certainly expect that from them, and I know they are excited about the opportunity.”
The “they” that Heupel is referring to redshirt freshmen Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb, who were listed as co-first-team receiver in McCoy’s old spot. Needless to say, the two have very limited experience given their underclassman status.
“I expect all of them to play at a high level,” Heupel said. “We are going to need all of those guys; that will be through the course of Saturday, but also throughout the course of the season. I expect to see all of those guys.”
The Vols have high expectations in 2023. Last season, Tennessee Football had an easy answer to a very similar quandary.