While there is clearly no Tennessee player as hyped as quarterback Nico Iamaleava, there are others that warrant some chatter. Receiver Mike Matthews is right up on the list for a couple of reasons.
Matthews, who was named MVP of the Polynesian Bowl last week, has the size and skill to be an early impact player for the Vols – if he can break Tennessee’s trend of limiting its receiver rotation. There are plenty of schools that would expect Matthews, a five-star prospect from Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., who signed with the Vols in December, to have an immediate impact. That’s a little more difficult at Tennessee as a receiver under head coach Josh Heupel.
For the most part, the Vols like to keep three receivers on the field. There isn’t much rotating between drives as the Vols tend to do with its tight ends. There certainly isn’t any substitution during drives since the Vols run a high-tempo attack, in part, to keep opposing defenses from being able to substitute. Even the Vols’ best receiver under Heupel, current New York Giant Jalin Hyatt, had to wait his turn to become the nation’s best receiver.
Hyatt admitted that he needed to become more dedicated to his craft before the 2022 season, in which he won the Biletnikoff Award. However, self-assessment is just part of the reason why it’s difficult to have an impact as a freshman receiver at Tennessee. Like a quarterback, the Vols’ receivers have to learn the vast majority of Heupel’s offense before they can become a regular. And if that’s not accomplished by the beginning of the season, things can get tough when it comes to playing time. A bad read by a receiver can look like a bad throw by Iamaleava. That can lead to a turnover and, possibly, a loss in a clutch situation.
While there are exceptions, like slot receiver Squirrel White who played extensively as a freshman, Iamaleava needs more mature, veteran players. After all, he is still just a sophomore even though you’ve probably heard about him for half of a decade. That’s why it’s so important that senior Bru McCoy comes back from a nasty lower leg injury he suffered against South Carolina. The fracture/dislocation to his right ankle occurred on Sept. 30 so there’s every reason to think he’ll be 100-percent this fall, although he’ll likely be limited in spring practice. That’s when Tennessee’s youngest receivers have the best opportunity to begin their climb up the depth chart.
Matthews is one of three receivers that are scheduled to enroll when spring classes begin, along with four-star prospect Braylon Staley and four-star transfer Chris Brazzell from Tulane. While Brazzell will be expected to compete for playing time immediately, considering he’s played college football, there is reason to think there might be a wait-and-see approach this season with Matthews and Staley, much like there was with Iamaleava last season. However, if the two have limited playing time this fall, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re busts. It just means they’re freshmen.
Not offering early playing time can be a high hurdle to overcome in recruiting. However, the Vols should be able to overcome that with Heupel’s prolific offense, which relies so much on explosive plays from their receivers. Sure, a receiver prospect might play more elsewhere, but he won’t likely be a part of a starting receiver group as a freshman at Tennessee.
Tennessee may have signed a star trio of receivers in the 2024 class, but their impact remains to be seen. No worries. Heupel took a patient approach with his quarterback and that seems to be moving along quite swimmingly.