Tennessee football: Cedric Tillman should be a favorite on Biletnikoff watch list

A fourth award listed this week involves a Tennessee football player. Cedric Tillman has been named to the 2022 Fred Biletnikoff Preseason Watch List three days after he and Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker were named to the 2022 Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List.

Given annually to the best receiver in college football, the Biletnikoff Award has never gone to a Vol. However, Tillman is the first 1,000-yard receiver returning to the Vols with the same quarterback since Kelley Washington and Casey Clausen.

Washington got hurt the next year, though, so Joey Kent and Peyton Manning in 1996 is a better comparison. Anyway, the award tweeted out the news of the Tennessee football wide receiver being named to its watch list Thursday morning.

Given the rare chance to be a returning 1,000-yard receiver with the same quarterback, which as mentioned he’ll be the first to do fully healthy if he doesn’t get hurt since Kent and Manning, Tillman already has a great chance to make a name for himself. However, he should be the favorite to win this award.

That’s because beyond just him returning, Hooker’s returning means a lot of stability. Very few returning receivers have that. Last year, Tillman was 29th in receiving yards and tied for eighth in receiving touchdowns. The 6’3″ 215-pound breakout star caught 64 passes for 1,091 yards and 12 scores on the year.

However, only nine of the players who finished ahead of him in receiving yards will be playing this year. Of those nine, three have transferred to new schools, three more have lost their quarterback, and another is undergoing a coaching change.

When you break all that down, Jaxon Smith-Njigba of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Nathaniel Dell of the Houston Cougars and A.T. Perry of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons are the only players back with the same quarterback and same head coach. Of those, Smith-Njigba is clearly the best.

Still, Smith-Njigba only had nine touchdown catches to Tillman’s 12. Perry and Dell did have 15, but they’re playing for Wake Forest and Houston. Tillman will get a boost as a Power Five player over Dell, and it’s hard to see Perry doing the same thing.

More importantly, Smith was within 300 receiving yards of both of them last year, and that came despite him having to play with Joe Milton III in the opener and Hendon Hooker getting hurt sporadically throughout the year. He also had to split reps with Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton. Both of them are gone.

Taking that into account, Tillman has more experience, more familiarity with the system, the same quarterback throwing the ball and is likely to see his targets increase. There’s a lot less competition with proven talent to get him the ball, so a 300-yard jump is easily possible.

As a result, only Smith-Njigba should have a chance to be a favorite over Tillman. After all, Garrett Wilson, Jeremy Ruckert and Chris Olave being gone there should help him boost his numbers too. However, they lose both tackles from last year.

Sure, the Vols lost Cade Mays, but for as versatile as he was, he never settled into a role. That’s not nearly as big a loss for them as Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford are for Ohio State. As a result, you still dip some points for Smith-Njigba because it’s hard to see C.J. Stroud being able to get him the ball as much with questions about pass protection.

What’s clear is that the race should come down to Smith-Njigba, Dell, Perry and Tillman. Everybody may bring up Jordan Addison, but he’s on a new team with a new coach and a new quarterback. Tennessee football is Wide Receiver U. This year is their best chance to cement that title with this trophy.