The notion that spring football practice isn’t all that important can be disputed by one of Tennessee’s 2021 breakout stars. Wideout Cedric Tillmann went into last season with eight catches in his career, but built up to a performance in which he became the first 1,000-yard receiver for the Vols in nine years and set the program record for consecutive games with a touchdown catch and now is the SEC’s leading returning receiver going into the 2022 season. Tillman’s success began with steady progress throughout spring ball a year ago, and Josh Heupel saw at least a couple of Tennessee players take similar paths during spring football this year.
After the Vols concluded their third and final scrimmage and essentially wrapped up spring practice on Thursday, the second-year head coach tabbed wide receiver Jalin Hyatt and defensive back Trevon Flowers as two standouts, players who steadily continued to progress through each third of spring football.
Of course, momentum must continue over the course of the summer for either player to fully emulate what Tillman did a year ago, but their progress so far this offseason can be viewed only as encouraging for them and for the Vols.
“If you’re talking at the wide receiver position, I think Jalin Hyatt,” Heupel said. “And you felt that way because of the offseason that he had, the gains that he made in the strength-and-conditioning program. It showed in his confidence and it showed up right away, just a physical presence about him on the field. As he has gone through spring ball, you’ve seen him continue to gain confidence and I like the momentum that he’s created here through spring ball.
He continued: “A guy that’s been here for a while, Three Flowers — I feel like he is playing best football by a long way, and it comes from confidence, comes in his leadership. But it’s shown in the way that he has played on the football field, too. Physical, been great making plays in open space when we’ve had scrimmage days, been great in his fits of him. Like the growth that he’s made.”
Super senior Flowers will be a third-year starter on the back line of Tennessee’s defense in 2022 after navigating injury-shortened freshman and sophomore seasons to become a fixture in the secondary. He was the third-leading tackler for the Vols last season, finishing with 82 and adding two interceptions, three pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and 1.5 tackles for loss. Flowers can improve his tackling and his coverage, but he brings some valuable attributes to the field with his experience, consistency and communication.
Flowers and fellow veteran safety Jaylen McCollough both have increased their leadership presences this fall, according to secondary coach willie martinez and their teammates, to fill the void in the secondary left by the departed duo of alontae taylor and Theo Jackson.
“Two guys that have completely thrust themselves forward,” Heupel said. “They recognize that it’s needed, the leadership inside of that room and on the defensive side of football. They recognized and accepted that they have a role to play in that. They’ve embraced it. They’ve grown. During the offseason, that was a point of emphasis in what we did every week in the lead-up to spring ball. You can see and sense and feel their energy out on the practice field every day.
“They have grown into becoming really strong leaders for us. We need them to continue to do that. It’ll be a big part of our defensive secondary playing at the level that they’re capable of and us as a defensive unit and our football team.”
Hyatt came to Tennessee as a touted Top247 prospect and flashed signs of his obvious talent during his first two seasons, catching 41 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns in 23 games, without entirely putting it all together. However, he’s rededicated himself this offseason as he takes aim on replacing Velus Jones Jr. at the slot position in Tennessee’s offense. Hyatt was back in Knoxville and basically living in the Anderson Training Center about a week after the Music City Bowl, and in the weeks before spring he put on 20 pounds, jumping to 184.
The Vols have two starting receivers to replace, and Hyatt is obviously an important figure in a receiving corps that this spring included, in addition to Tillman, several inexperienced and unproven returning players and four freshmen.
“(Need to see) continued growth and competition at that position,” Heupel said. “Jalin Hyatt, great offseason, it’s shown in the way that he’s grown as a competitive playmaker at the wide receivers position. The young guys that came into our program have transitioned into college football really well. They need to get on the back end of spring ball, revisit the installs, revisit the cut-ups, grow in their strength here as we go through the summer to give themselves an ability to come back and play at the level that we need to next fail.”