Tennessee’s wide receivers have left much to be desired over the first two games of the 2021 season. The group possesses elite speed at nearly every turn and in the new up-tempo offense under head coach Josh Heupel, pass-catching is supposed to be a strength of the team.
But that hasn’t been the case through Tennessee’s first two games. The receivers aren’t fully to blame for their struggles – the Vols have had inconsistent play out of both Joe Milton III and Hendon Hooker at quarterback – but wide receivers coach Kodi Burns knows his group cannot make excuses.
“My approach to it – I played quarterback – it’s not about the quarterback, we’ve got to be on point,” Burns said. "I don’t care who’s playing at quarterback, whether it’s Joe or Hendon, doesn’t matter. We’ve got to be on point. We’ve got to run the right depths, we’ve got to run the correct reads, we’ve got to run the correct routes and we’ve got to make plays for those quarterbacks to take pressure off of them. As long as we handle out part, the rest will take care of itself.”
Part of the improved receiver play came in sophomore Jimmy Calloway’s return to the field in Tennessee’s 41-34 loss to Pitt last Saturday.
Calloway was a quarterback in high school, but he moved to receiver when he arrived at Tennessee and appeared in eight games as a freshman mostly on special teams. As he continued to learn the position over the offseason, Calloway rose up Tennessee’s depth chart.
“It’s really night and day how far Jimmy has come,” Burns said. “Last year being a COVID(-19) year, just a strange and unique year, which we all know. New staff, change of position coach, change of an offense, he really had to relearn everything once again.”
But a leg injury cost Calloway his season debut against Bowling Green, and he didn’t take the field for the first time until the Pitt game, but he quickly made his presence felt.
“Jimmy Calloway is going to be a special player when it’s all said and done,” Burns said. “I think there was evidence out there on the field this past week that once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a difference maker.”
Calloway caught only 3 passes for 59 yards in his season debut against Pitt, but he had Tennessee’s biggest touchdown of the afternoon.
Trailing by a touchdown with just over two minutes to play in the first half, Hooker found Calloway open on the sideline for a simple screen pass, but with his athletic ability, he turned the play into something special. Calloway made two Pitt defenders miss on the initial tackle, and then sprinted down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown, the first of his career.
"It was a simple jab step, catch and I froze the defender where I wanted to. The rest was just legs,” Calloway said after Saturday’s game.
What impressed Burns the most on the play was Calloway’s yards after the catch – all 44 yards on that play. It’s a skill that can’t be taught, but rather comes from Calloway’s natural abilities.
“Yards after catch, that’s a unique ability that most guys have talent that you recruit to,” Burns said. “We do have a couple of guys that are great ball in hand guys. It’s my job as coach to design routes and show you how to run the route to get you open, and the rest of it is up to you.”
It’s the big-yardage plays like these that make Tennessee’s sluggish offensive start so befuddling. The potential is clearly there. A combination of a well-planned scheme on the coaching staff’s part and good route-running on the receivers’ part have led to several chunk plays – four Tennessee receivers have a long catch of 30 yards or more – but there’s been several overthrows and missed opportunities too.
Despite that, Burns and the receivers are focused on themselves and improving their game in every way, not worrying about who will suit up at quarterback.
“So I tell my guys in the meeting, ‘You don’t ever question or worry about what’s going on at quarterback. Let’s be on point, let’s go out there and make plays,’” Burns said.