JaVonta Payton eager to be deep threat for Vols; freshman Willis catching up

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee receiver JaVonta Payton, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State, is happy to be playing closer to his Nashville home.

JaVonta Payton stayed busy as a Mississippi State receiver the past two seasons.

Now a graduate transfer at Tennessee, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder from Nashville believes he can have more of an impact in Josh Heupel's up-tempo offense than he did a year ago in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" attack.

"With the Air Raid, it was a lot of sitting down in zones and reading the defenses," Payton said during a recent news conference. "I go deep a lot more now than I did when I was at State, so I would definitely say that this offense is more comfortable for me. I think I can bring a lot of speed to this offense.

"I can run. Any DB that lines up with me needs to be ready to run."

Payton, who has one season of eligibility with the Volunteers, insists that sophomore receiver Jalin Hyatt and freshman defensive back De'Shawn Rucker are the only teammates who could potentially top him in a race. He has switched Southeastern Conference locales after tallying 28 catches for 372 yards and a touchdown during his stint in Starkville, which followed two seasons at Northwest (Mississippi) Community College.

Tennessee's receiver position, like many others, was noticeably affected by departures following last season. Josh Palmer became a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers, while Brandon Johnson transferred to Central Florida and Malachi Wideman to Jackson State.

Velus Jones Jr., a sixth-year senior who is in his second season with the Vols after transferring from Southern California, is the leader of Tennessee's receivers, but he has veteran help.

"In our wide receiver room, we have a little bit of age on the top, but we're really young underneath," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said, "so his experience and having played in this league, I think, is important for us and was an important piece for us to add in the spring."

Payton played at Hillsboro High in Nashville and competed two years ago inside Neyland Stadium, when Mississippi State dropped a 20-10 decision.

In last season's opener at LSU, the defending national champion, Payton amassed six receptions for 122 yards during the 44-34 upset triumph. He would only add 103 yards the rest of the year on 13 catches and decided that a move closer to home would be beneficial.

"It was exciting," Payton said of his Knoxville arrival. "Everybody told me when I got here, 'You should have been here.' Just being back in my home state and knowing all the players - I knew a lot of the players before I got here, so it just feels so much more comfortable being around a lot of players that I know.

"It's weird, because Tennessee recruited me literally out of high school, junior college and then in the portal. Like I tell people, they were literally the first team to always contact me when I was going into any type of recruiting process, so me coming back felt so perfect."

An underrated aspect to Payton's game is his involvement on special teams, with his 20 tackles the past two seasons reflecting a team-high total for the Bulldogs. He also returned six kickoffs for a 20.2-yard average.

Willis catching up

When the dust settled on Tennessee's 2021 signing class, which had been rated as high as No. 2 nationally in the spring of 2020 before defections left the collection at No. 23, linebacker Aaron Willis was the highest-rated member as a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 137 overall recruit.

Willis, a 6-1, 225-pounder from Richmond, Virginia, did not play his senior season of high school due to coronavirus restrictions and was suspended this spring in Knoxville after enrolling early.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said Tuesday. "His biggest issue was not playing in the COVID year, and that really set himself behind conditioning-wise. He had to get his body back in physical shape, but I feel like he had a good summer and has done that."

Jean-Mary praised redshirt junior Jeremy Banks for being able to play multiple linebacker spots and said that Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell has been a welcome addition due to his savvy and leadership.

Happier times

Place redshirt sophomore tackle Dayne Davis at the top of the list of Vols happiest about the Jeremy Pruitt era being replaced by the Heupel era.

"It's a complete culture change in the locker room," said Davis, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound former walk-on from Bluff City who has been getting first-team work at right tackle. "Everybody is wanting to practice now, where before it was kind of dreading the day. Practice is fun now. Everything is fun, and we're all ready to be here in the morning.

"It just wasn't fun being around here with that last staff. It was an agonizing kind of feeling. It's very much changed now."

No votes for Vols

Tennessee, South Carolina and Vanderbilt were the only SEC teams that didn't receive votes in the USA Today preseason poll released Tuesday.

Alabama is No. 1, Georgia No. 5, Texas A&M No. 6, Florida No. 11, LSU No. 13 and Ole Miss No. 25, while Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi State received votes.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.