There’s a reason Josh Heupel always believed in the depth of his wide receivers. He didn’t panic when Tennessee football lost Cedric Tillman for half the season, and he didn’t seem bothered when Jalin Hyatt opted out of the Orange Bowl to focus on the 2023 NFL Draft.
Heupel’s system allows for any good receiver to blossom, and the Vols have that beyond Tillman and Hyatt. Sure, Hyatt won the Biletnikoff Award this year, but he had help from Tillman being out and slot receivers having tons of opportunities in this offense.
With Hyatt out, Heupel just turned to his next slot receiver. Squirrel White solidified himself as the next star receiver in the slot for Tennessee football with the way he played as the Vols beat the Clemson Tigers 31-14 Friday night.
Joe Milton III did a good job delivering the ball to everybody, but White led the group, catching nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. His score was a great grab over the middle, and he caught another beautiful deep ball from Milton.
This isn’t shocking. Before Hyatt, Velus Jones Jr. caught 62 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. The only reason he didn’t have bigger numbers is because Tillman was balling on the outside. Hyatt, the heir apparent to Jones, played a larger role due to Tillman’s injury.
Even before taking over Tennessee football, though, Heupel always had a slot receiver. Marlon Williams was a two-year star with the UCF Knights in 2019 and 2020 playing that role. Then came Jones in 2021 and Hyatt in 2022.
Of course, it’s still a meritocracy and not a complete product of the system. After all, White beat out Jimmy Calloway and Jimmy Holiday for the No. 2 slot guy behind Hyatt this year despite being a true freshman. There’s a base level of skill. Afterward, though, it’s abut the system.
If you followed Tennessee football in mop-up duty throughout the season, it’s clear White was next in line behind Hyatt. Even before this game, a majority of his catches on the year came with Milton throwing him the ball, and they were establishing a clear relationship.
Friday night’s performance may have been a preview of what those two may be able to do as a duo next year. Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton will still be key at wideout, but White brings a ton of potential as the big-play guy over the middle, and he could also pull a Jones and double as a return specialist if needed.