Tennessee football: Cedric Tillman leaves as one of Vols’ great overachievers

His decision to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season with Tennessee football didn’t end up the way anybody hoped it would, but Cedric Tillman’s emergence is still one of the great stories in UT history. Tillman revealed Monday he wouldn’t take part in the bowl game and focus on the NFL Draft.

Obviously, this decision makes sense. Tillman is a fifth-year senior, and he has missed most of the year due to an ankle injury. Coming back to play in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers would do no favors for the Vols or himself given what he needs to focus on.

However, despite the underwhelming final season, nobody should forget what Tillman did for Tennessee football. If not for his efforts in 2021, Josh Heupel may never have gotten the program to where it’s at now. That season set the standard, and Tillman was a crucial part of that.

To appreciate Tillman, though, you have to go even further back to his recruitment. He was a throwaway commitment out of Las Vegas in Jeremy Pruitt’s first class back in 2018. On Rivals, he was actually just a two-star. There was no reason to believe he would break out into a star.

In 2019, the Vols added Ramel Keyton, and in 2020, they added USC Trojans transfer Velus Jones Jr. and Jalin Hyatt. Josh Heupel then added Mississippi State Bulldogs transfer JaVonta Payton, and all signs pointed to Tillman staying buried in the depth chart.

The opposite happened. Tillman worked his way up to Tennessee football’s No. 1 wideout position, and in the process, he caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. All the hype was mostly behind Hyatt that year but then Keyton and Jones to a lesser degree, but Tillman stood out.

Give Pruitt and that first staff credit for discovering Tillman. They did have an eye for talent. Still, this success is largely due to Tillman’s work ethic and his mental toughness. His decision to stay with Tennessee football after the staff changes shouldn’t be ignored.

Although this year was a disappointment with the ankle injury he suffered against the Akron Zips, he still managed to have an impact on the Vols’ season. Don’t forget that in really just five games, he had 35 catches for 401 yards and three touchdowns. We’re not including the two catches for 16 yards against Akron in that.

Tillman was also crucial to the Vols’ win at the Pittsburgh Panthers. He had nine catches for 162 yards and a touchdown in that game, and that touchdown was the game-winner in overtime. UT would have at least been 9-3 without him.

Simply put, Tillman is one of Tennessee football’s greatest stories given the expectations surrounding him and what he turned himself into. In the pros, he’s got a chance to follow in the recent footsteps of Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer as a solid wideout.