Spring Primer: Who will emerge as No.2 receiver?

Jake Nichols

No position group will look more different going from 2019 to 2020 for the Vols than the wide receivers. Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Tyler Byrd all graduated, leaving the Vols immediate questions to answer about their starting receivers and rotational players at the position. Rising senior Josh Palmer looks to move into the top receiver role after showing growth and the ability to be a weapon as the third option in 2019. Behind Palmer, the races are wide open. Brandon Johnson is a rising fifth-year senior after redshirting in 2019, and rising sophomores Cedric Tillman (Rs) and Ramel Keyton look poised to aim for the other starting spot opposite Palmer. DeAngelo Gibbs will be a redshirt junior after sitting out 2019 as a transfer, but if Jeremy Pruitt elects to leave him on offense, he will push in this race as well. Then the Vols have incoming freshmen Jalin Hyatt, Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, Dee Beckwith, and potentially Jimmy Holiday. How this position battle shakes out will be key in Jim Chaney's offense, and our staff gives their thoughts here.

Brandon: The biggest unknown in all these receivers that Tennessee can choose from is DeAngelo Gibbs. Gibbs was a five-star athlete when he came out of Grayson, showing excellent potential at defensive back and wide receiver. At Georgia, Kirby Smart played Gibbs as a defensive back with considerable success. After his transfer to Tennessee, Gibbs has worked both sides of the ball but appears settled in as a wide receiver now. Reports came regularly from Tennessee practices about Gibbs making incredible catches routinely. He may be a gamble, but Gibbs has perhaps the highest ceiling of any of the receivers the Vols have, and after transferring, betting it all on being able to make an impact in two years with the Vols, Gibbs is my pick to land a starting job. It may have been a few years since Gibbs played receiver full time, but you only need to pop on his tape at Grayson to see the talent as a pass-catcher. Gibbs is 6'3", so he brings excellent size on the edge, something that Chaney has used well with Jennings, Callaway, and Palmer last season. Gibbs also shows excellent speed. Even at 6'3", Gibbs has sub 4.4 speed, incredible leaping ability, good, natural hands, and the strength to fight for contested balls. Tennessee will miss the physicality of Jennings on the outside, but Gibbs has been a safety in the SEC, he will bring physical play to the position, especially after the catch. If Gibbs has been able to grow with a season under Tee Martin to learn the finer points of being a receiver, namely developing his route running, he will give the Vols a big body on the outside that is also an elite deep-ball threat.

Jake: For its 2020 offense, Tennessee features plenty of experience. Quarterbacks, the offensive line unit, and running backs all possess a comforting amount of depth for the Vols, especially considering the turmoil they endured in 2019.

There is, however, a glaring gap at wide receiver as we move closer to spring practice. With Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Dominick Wood-Anderson and several other offensive weapons having departed for graduation and/or the NFL, Tennessee will look to Josh Palmer as its go-to target for Jarrett Guarantano or even Harrison Bailey based on some evaluations. No matter the name under center, though, Tennessee will need a weapon across from Palmer in whatever formations Jim Chaney and Tee Martin draw up for this season.

For that role, I would first go to DeAngelo Gibbs, then Ramel Keyton. Gibbs would be my top choice based on his athleticism. Moreover, since he was primarily a defensive back at Georgia, Gibbs’ ball-hawking ability could prove promising considering the level of toughness required to play the wideout position under Tee Martin. We saw a similar tenacity from Jennings last season, so grit could be a larger factor than some believe, even on a different side of the ball than Gibbs’ former position.

If Derrick Ansley does get his way, though, and Gibbs works primarily as a defensive back, then Ramel Keyton is another excellent option for Tennessee. (Disclaimer: Some might be wondering why Cedric Tillman, Johnson or Jalin Hyatt haven’t been mentioned. To those people, Tillman is solid, but Keyton has shown more to this point, at least to me.

For Johnson, he’s directly behind Keyton, but Keyton still showcased more last season. And Hyatt will be an incredible talent, without a doubt. As far as experience and bulk are concerned, though, Keyton seems the clear front-runner.) Besides the aforementioned reasons, Keyton showed flashes of big-play ability throughout 2019. His catches against Indiana put the Vols in great field position, and his size is very similar to Palmer, making him the perfect choice to fill the gap left by Jennings and Callaway.

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