Vols hope to make JaVonta Payton a deep threat for 60 minutes

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver JaVonta Payton has five touchdown catches this season, with all five coming within the first 20 minutes of a game.

Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver JaVonta Payton is the unquestioned deep threat for the Volunteers entering the final month of the regular season.

It's just that deep, early threat might be a bit more accurate.

The graduate transfer from Mississippi State has amassed 12 receptions for 287 yards, which translates to a whopping 23.9 yards per catch. All five of his touchdown catches have covered at least 29 yards, with all five transpiring within the first 20 minutes of a game.

"One of the big factors that helps is me being fast," Payton said this week. "Running track growing up really helped me with my speed, and a lot of the times when I do score, it's early in the game when a lot of teams like to play man coverage. I think my speed helps me get space.

"It just helps me being able to pretty much run faster than my defender."

Four of Payton's five touchdowns have occurred in the first quarter, including on a 57-yard pass from Hendon Hooker that briefly put the Vols up 14-7 during their 52-24 loss at Alabama on Oct. 23. The exception was his 75-yard score at Florida with 11:31 before halftime that provided Tennessee a 14-10 advantage in its eventual 38-14 setback.

Expanding Payton's success is among the objectives the Vols have this weekend when they attempt to take down No. 18 Kentucky at Kroger Field.

"Some of that has just been the way it's unfolded a little early for him," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said Wednesday. "It's not designed that way, and we just haven't hit a big play to him later in the ballgame. JaVonta has done a lot of really positive things here, and he has accelerated his growth curve since the start of training camp.

"I do think the last third of this season that he has a chance to continue to grow in what we're doing and be an even bigger part of what we're doing."

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is already familiar with Payton, who traveled to Lexington last season with Mississippi State and had five catches for 34 yards in a 24-2 loss. That 6.8-yard average pales to what the 6-foot-1, 180-pound former Hillsboro High School standout from Nashville is accomplishing now, and Stoops hopes his Wildcats can keep him out of the end zone.

"JaVonta is very dangerous like a lot of their guys," Stoops said. "When you look around at (Cedric) Tillman and (Jalin) Hyatt and (Velus) Jones - all of them - and you put JaVonta in there with them, and they all can hurt you. In their offense, they obviously put a lot of stress on you with their system and with the level Hendon is playing at.

"You add some difference makers out there at receiver, and you certainly have to be on your toes. You better be locked in, or they will run right by you in a blink. You've got to be locked in at all times."

Arizona reunion

The 2005 Arizona Wildcats were guided by second-year head coach Mike Stoops, and their 3-8 record was highlighted by a 52-14 November stunning of No. 7 UCLA.

That Arizona team had Mark Stoops in his second of six seasons as defensive coordinator, while Heupel was in his lone year as the program's tight ends coach after working the previous two seasons as an Oklahoma graduate assistant. By the 2006 season, Heupel was back at Oklahoma, his alma mater, coaching quarterbacks.

Bob Stoops - older brother to Mike and Mark - was Oklahoma's head coach for 18 seasons (1999-2016).

"Josh was a good quality guy and a really good person," Mark Stoops said. "He has spent time with both of my brothers, and I remember him being a very good coach even though we were together for a very short time. I remember taking him in and showing him around Tucson, because he was new to the area."

Said Heupel: "He was the defensive coordinator there and did a great job schematically and organizationally and had the ability to change week to week. He was a good recruiter. I was there early in the process of building that program, and he did a great job."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.