Breakout Vols hungry for even bigger offensive numbers

KNOXVILLE, TN - September 11, 2021 - Tight end Jacob Warren #87 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics


Should anybody be surprised that Tennessee players who feasted at Josh Heupel's offensive table last football season have been waiting in line for seconds?

"I want to double my stats," fifth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren said this week in a news conference. "Whatever I had last year, I'm trying to double it. I just want a lot more production in the passing game."

Warren collected just seven catches in the three-year Jeremy Pruitt era from 2018-20, but the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder from Knoxville racked up five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown in the second game last year against Pittsburgh. Warren finished last season with 18 catches for 179 yards and three scores, essentially tripling his productivity from before, which helps explain his excitement for Thursday night's opener (7 on the SEC Network) against visiting Ball State.

Of course, tripling isn't octupling, which is what fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman experienced after the change in command.

Tillman, a 6-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas, entered last season with eight career catches before erupting for 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. He will enter Thursday's showdown looking to extend his school record of seven consecutive contests with at least one touchdown catch.

"Last year at this point, nobody knew who he was and certainly didn't know what he was about on the football field," Heupel said this week. "He's been so consistent, and you guys see the confidence in who he is. He's got a great understanding of how to prepare, and he's continued to get better.

"I expect him to have a big night and a big year."

Tillman has appeared on multiple Southeastern Conference and national preseason teams, so he could face much more attention this year out of the gate. Of course, that wasn't a factor late last season, when he closed with four straight 100-yard performances.

"That's what I keep hearing, but personally I don't know," Tillman said. "Whatever teams throw at me, I believe in my preparation more, and they say the best receivers always get double-teamed and always get the attention, so it's just one of those things that comes with it.

"Whatever happens, happens. I'm going to play my game and do the best to help the team win."

Heupel and sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker have expressed their desires to spread more of the wealth this year, which would not only include the running back tandem of Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright but also potential breakout receivers Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy. Even Warren knows he has company, having shared time with sixth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant, who had 16 catches for 220 yards a year ago after tallying 14 for 118 earlier in his career.

"It's tough when you're rolling guys," Warren said. "If P-Fant gets five touches a game and I get one, that's fine, too."

Still, trying to assemble loftier than ever offensive numbers expects to be a fun time for everyone involved.

"The sky is the limit, honestly," Tillman said. "I'm not going to put a specific number on anything. Even the personal goals of catches, yards and touchdowns will take care of themselves."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.