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Tennessee Vols’ offense overcomes to progress in spring camp

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Tennessee’s spring practice can be all about instilling confidence. Well, when it comes to the Vols’ passing game, that initiative is quickly being met.

Let’s start with Dont’e Thornton Jr. When he transferred from Oregon, he was supposed to step into the slot receiver position and set the world on fire, just like former Vol receiver Jalin Hyatt did in 2022 when he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. Well, that didn’t happen. Thornton just wasn’t ready to excel on Saturdays when he had missed so much time during the week preparing for the fall.

“Last year, with where we were at with the guys that we’ve had, we started him in the slot,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said on Thursday after the Vols held a scrimmage in Neyland Stadium. “He got some work on the outside, and he was so limited in spring ball and training camp. He got banged up, and he missed a lot of practices and opportunities to grow in what we’re doing. 

“We moved him outside in the middle part of last year, and he’s playing his best football and got dinged up. It’s a guy who has great trust in the coaching staff. He understands how to operate and function within our offense. He understands coverages. He’s continuing to grow out there, and I really like what he’s done.”

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Not that anyone is concerned with quarterback Nico Iamaleava’s confidence, but for anyone that is wondering, he seems to be doing just fine.

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“I thought he operated and functioned extremely well tonight,” Heupel said. “He made some plays. He did that with his arm, and he made some with his feet too. We did not start out super fast on the offensive side of the football. We had some opportunities to get points out of it. 

“I thought his competitive composure was really big and kind of his demeanor in general. He’s continuing to grow in a leadership role too, so I’m really pleased with what he’s done. That’s tonight and through the first part of spring ball.”

Thornton isn’t the only receiver that Heupel needs to gain some more spring practice time in hopes of building his confidence within the Vols offense. Chris Brazzell II from Tulane and Mike Matthews, a five-star receiver from Georgia, continue to make plays during spring camp.

“Some guys made some plays, especially the newer guys,” Heupel said. “Brazzell II made some really nice plays today. Mike Matthews made some plays down the football field. Dont’e Thornton made some plays. They continue to grow.”

Tennessee cited DeSean Bishop as a running back that had practiced well since Cam Seldon was ruled out of the remainder of spring camp with a shoulder injury. The first-string, running back role is set with Dylan Sampson ready to start this season. Sampson isn’t huge and, after that, it can get a bit dicey.

“Dylan has done a great job from the time that he’s gotten here,” Heupel said. “He transitioned seamlessly into what we do offensively. Everybody has seen the plays that he’s made. He had leadership traits. He’s always brought great energy out to the practice field with him, or the meeting room, but he’s really thrust himself into a leadership role. 

“We have a great, collective group of leaders that are really strong right now. They’ve grown since we started our offseason in January, have seen a lot of growth from that group. They’re intentional on impacting the people around them. When you’re out at practice seeing guys coach each other up and bring energy to each other, it happens on a consistent basis.”

There isn’t an older, accomplished quarterback to help lead Iamaleava, although walk-on Gaston Moore might be able to assume the role. That’s okay. Iamaleava seems to be getting along just fine. Highly touted freshman Jake Merklinger seems to also be making coaches much more confident in his ability to function within the offense and not make huge mistakes.

More comfortable today than he was scrimmage (No.) one, not even close,” Heupel said. “That’s his command on the sideline and in the huddle, and then controlling what’s going on out there. There’s a lot of fundamental growth left. That’s typical of all the young quarterbacks that come in here.”

Tennessee’s passing game isn’t where it needs to be, but the more snaps, the better. That’s already shown up for the Vols when the ball is in the air.

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