These could be the final few days of the few months Velus Jones has spent as a Tennessee receiver.
At least he's making the most of them.
The graduate transfer from Southern California had four catches for 70 yards in last Saturday's 31-19 loss to Florida inside Neyland Stadium, a performance that nearly comprises half of his 155-yard receiving total this season. The sixth-ranked Gators took full control of the game early in the third quarter with a 24-7 lead and entered the final minute with a 31-13 advantage, but that didn't dampen the 22-yard touchdown catch Jones had from J.T. Shrout with 27 seconds remaining.
"It was honestly a great feeling," Jones said this week. 'The crowd went crazy. What is it, like 30% capacity? I'm not even sure how many fans there are, but it seemed like a packed house when I scored that touchdown. It was an amazing feeling for me, because I think the last time I scored a touchdown was 2018. It felt good, and it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
"I know how hard I prepared during the offseason, including when I was back at home. It felt like it all paid off."
Finding anything to celebrate in Tennessee's 2-6 season with six straight losses by double-digit margins entering Saturday afternoon's game at Vanderbilt (0-8) is difficult. Jones had five catches for 29 yards and two kickoff returns for 66 yards in Tennessee's 31-27 victory at South Carolina to open the season, but the 6-foot, 200-pounder from Saraland, Alabama - a suburb of Mobile - was not much of a factor when the losing streak started.
His late-season emergence includes a 28-yard catch and a 32-yard kickoff return in the 30-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 21.
"Velus is a guy who is strong to start with," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week about the increased role. "He weighs 200 pounds. He has experience, and he's fast. He's a guy who we've tried to use in our game plan in a bunch of different ways, so it was good to see us have a chance to get him the ball."
Jones snagged a 19-yard pass from Harrison Bailey on the second play of the second quarter last Saturday to ignite a 96-yard touchdown drive that provided Tennessee its lone lead at 7-3, while his three other catches came from Shrout. Jarrett Guarantano has accounted for most of the passes to Jones this season, but the Vols have been moving forward this week with Bailey and Shrout and a spot role for Brian Maurer.
When asked this week about Shrout's two lengthy fourth-quarter drives after replacing Bailey in a 31-7 game, Jones said: "He came in and he did his job. We're all on scholarship, and it's our job and duty to perform and put our talents on display."
Jones grew up hearing about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry before signing with a Pac-12 school and experiencing USC-UCLA. He is excited about his first Tennessee-Vanderbilt encounter but knows that games can get postponed in the blink of an eye in this COVID-19 pandemic.
After all, the Vols have played just three times since the calendar flipped to November.
"Whether they're going to cancel games or postpone games, I have to go in with that mindset of being ready to play the opponent," Jones said. "If the game is canceled, then I have to figure out what I'm going to do to help my team be successful in our next game. At practice, you're proving to the coaches that you're the guy for the job and that you can get it done.
"When any opportunity comes my way, I'm going to make the most out of it. That's what happened on Saturday. I was blessed to be targeted as many times I was targeted."
Kickoff times set
Tennessee will host No. 5 Texas A&M on Dec. 19 - a week from Saturday - in a rescheduled cross-divisional contest that will kick off at noon. At the same time, No. 12 Georgia will host Vanderbilt in a rescheduled meeting of SEC East teams. Television for those games will be announced Sunday.