Freshmen receivers get chance with Tennessee this season

The Tennessee Volunteers have to replace their top two wide receivers, and a group of freshmen will get the opportunity to help fill the void left by the loss of Jajuan Jennings and Marquez Callaway.

“All of those guys are going to have to play,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said.

”They all have plenty ability. They run really well. They have instincts. They all have soft hands. It’s a different league,” Pruitt said. “They’re not playing high school ball anymore where they can just run freely and they get free releases. The guys that they’re going against every day or every Saturday are just as good of athletes as they are.”

Pruitt and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney do have a pair of seniors leading the way with Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson. They also have sophomores Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman, and Velus Jones left Southern Cal as a graduate transfer to rejoin assistant head coach Tee Martin who coaches receivers.

Jimmy Calloway, Jalin Hyatt and Malchi Wideman are the three freshmen wide receivers, and they’ve been joined by Dee Beckwith and Jimmy Holiday who signed as a quarterback and now is playing receiver.

Palmer, the third-leading receiver last season, said Callaway, who signed as a free agent with the New Orleans Saints, and Jennings, a seventh-round pick by San Francisco, taught him and Johnson a lot. Jennings ranked 45th nationally with 959 yards receiving, while Callaway was second on the team with 635 yards.

“I was fortunate enough to play with them for three years,” Palmer said. “And they did teach me a lot physically and mentally. So with their absence, they really just paved the way for the way we’re coming in now.”

The coronavirus pandemic limited No. 25 Tennessee to only two spring practices before sports shut down in March. Palmer said the upper classmen have been helping the freshmen get up to speed with the playbook and how Pruitt and his coaches want things done.

“They don’t really know how things used to work beforehand because with everything with COVID, so now we’re just kind of taking them under our wing and we’re just looking for a great season,” Palmer said.

One wide receiver the Vols won’t have is Deangelo Gibbs, who sat out last year after transferring from Georgia. Pruitt said Gibbs has decided not to play this season and focus on academics while remaining with the team.

The one thing the Volunteers hope to take advantage of is continuity. Chaney is going into his second season along with Martin, while this is Pruitt’s third season.

With senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano going into the season as the starter, that should give Tennessee a chance to improve over last season when they ranked 75th averaging 221.4 yards passing per game. The Vols also could use a scoring boost after ranking 98th in 2019 averaging 24.2 points a game.

Chaney said Johnson and Palmer, along with Keyton and Tillman, have been providing leadership. The coordinator said the freshmen are very talented, can catch and go fast. Now the key is getting them familiar with the offense.

“They might go the wrong way fast, and that creates some problems, but they’re going fast on the football field,” Chaney said. “I’m very pleased with the kids that we brought in here as young wide receivers. I think they’re going to be just fine. I think you’ll see them on the football field helping us quite a bit.”

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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