When Kodi Burns came to Knoxville, he knew there was a challenge ahead of him in developing a promising yet inexperienced wide receivers room. In fact, he discussed it in his introductory press conference.
"When I first looked at the numbers, the first impression is very inexperienced," Burns said at the time. "We lost a couple of guys the last few years that were very productive. We're going to be young and very inexperienced once again for this league, but there's also potential. So, we have to just continue to grow and develop these guys into what we want them to be for our team and offense. So, it's going to be a challenge, and I'm excited about that challenge to truly develop these guys and get those guys to play at a high level to what we think we need to win."
Even the Vols' leading wide receiver during the 2021 season, Cedric Tillman, fell in that initial inexperienced category. For reference, through three seasons under the previous staff, Tillman had a career total of eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, whereas this fall, he soared up Tennessee's single-season receiving lists.
Against Georgia, Tillman caught ten passes for 200 yards and a touchdown. Against Alabama, Tillman caught seven passes for 152 yards and a score. In the Vols 2021 finale against Purdue, Tillman hauled in seven passes for 150 yards and three scores. He finished the season with 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns and now will enter next season as a preseason favorite for the Biletnikoff Award.
Tillman is a prime example of significant development for Burns's unit in year one, but the supporting cast around the star wide receiver also made substantial strides.
Velus Jones's catch total went from 22 in 2020 to 62 in 2021. He totaled 807 receiving yards in 2021, opposed to 270 in 2020.JaVonta Payton saw yardage increase from 225 in 2020 at Mississippi State to 413 in 2021 at Tennessee. He hauled in six scores and saw his yard per catch rise from 11.8 in 2020 in Mike Leach's aerial attack to 22.9 yards per catch in 2021 under Burns's and Heupel's tutelage.
This fall just laid the groundwork for what Burns & Co. will look to achieve in the goal of returning Tennessee to WRU. Selling Tennessee on the recruiting trail has never been extremely difficult. Still, this coaching staff probably inherited the most challenging job yet, due to the looming NCAA sanctions and other issues surrounding the program when they took over. But from the jump in January, Burns was confident once players across the country could see the product on the field, he would be able to sell Tennessee again.
"To be honest, to sell Tennessee is not very hard at all," Burns said during his introductory press conference in February. "Tennessee is one of the most storied traditions in all of college football with just the amount of national titles and SEC Championships. It wasn't that long ago that Tennessee was on the top. The sell is really, 'Why would you not want to be a part of getting Tennessee back to the standard of Tennessee football?' You look at the campus, the facilities; they're second-to-none. Now, coaching the wide receivers here at Tennessee, it's the style of offense. I think that once guys start to see what we're doing in the spring game, in this fall coming up, how we're going to throw the ball, what we do, the tempo with which we play with and how different we're going to be offensively than everybody else in the SEC, I don't think it's going to be a hard sell once we start putting things on film that kids can see. With that being said, outside of the football aspect, Tennessee is a storied tradition. If I'm one of these young guys out there, a chance to play at Tennessee means something. To play here on Rocky Top in front of 102,455, that sells itself. It's a blessing to be here, and I hope those kids really understand that. That's what I'm trying to get them to do in recruiting."
Burns was previously an integral part of developing NFL Draft picks Anthony Schwartz, Darius Slayton, and Seth Williams at Auburn. His ability to develop led to each of them becoming a star on The Plains and finding their way into the Auburn receiving record books.
In year one at Tennessee, Burns helped Velus Jones Jr. take a significant step forward that could lead to his name being called in April. While JaVonta Payton displayed his ability to make explosive plays, and Cedric Tillman became a star in the toughest league in college football.
He has a well-rounded group of recruits coming in in the 2022 class, including do-it-all pass catcher Cam Miller, world-class speedster Squirrel White, and vertical threats Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod. The final piece of the puzzle could be Wyoming transfer, Isaiah Neyor, who is currently committed to the Vols but continuing to take visits before enrolling at the school of his choice within the next week.
In year one, Burns's message from his introductory press conference held true. The foundation has been laid for Tennessee to field one of the best receiving corps in the SEC next fall. Now, the Vols will look to capitalize on this in a pivotal year two. Neyor and Tillman on the edge coupled with world-class speed and polished route trees on the inside from guys like White, Jalin Hyatt and others, plus overall depth, should lead to a fun season for Tennessee pass-catchers next fall.