There have been two prominent passing connections for Tennessee in the Josh Heupel era, Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman last year and Hooker to Jalin Hyatt this season.
Those components are unavailable for the No. 6 Volunteers as they prepare for No. 7 Clemson in next Friday night's Orange Bowl, with Hooker dealing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and with Tillman and Hyatt choosing to bypass the showdown to focus on their impending NFL opportunities. Their absences have resulted in Joe Milton III being Tennessee's top quarterback and Bru McCoy its leading receiver.
Milton did not complete one pass to McCoy during the Vols' 10-2 regular season.
"With him stepping up and being the guy this game, we've taken reps," McCoy said this week during a news conference, "and I think we're both confident in one another. We already have a great rapport, and we're just going to continue to build on it.
"This is a good opportunity to showcase that."
Hooker's torn ACL during the fourth quarter of the 63-38 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 19 overshadowed an undisclosed injury that McCoy sustained earlier in that game that forced him to miss the 56-0 win at Vanderbilt the following week. Milton made his first start of the season against the Commodores, but most of his appearances transpired during the fourth quarter of blowouts when McCoy was already through for the day.
Milton also isn't concerned about his next completion to McCoy being his first.
"Bru is a hard worker," Milton said. "He wants it, and he wants it for everybody."
While Milton's numbers have been limited this year -- he has completed 34 of 54 passes (63.0%) for 720 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions -- McCoy has certainly delivered in his first season since transferring from Southern California. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt junior has amassed 48 catches for 619 yards (12.9 per reception) and three scores.
McCoy has been incredibly productive on key occasions, amassing 102 yards against Florida and 140 yards at LSU and hauling in a contested 27-yard reception against Alabama that set up Chase McGrath's winning 40-yard field goal on the final play.
"This season was super fun more than anything," McCoy said. "We had a blast in every game. We had so many big games, and to go have the success the way we did was awesome. Now we have the opportunity to play in an awesome New Year's Six bowl game and to have fun again.
"This game is not really about showcasing anything as far as next year or anything like that in my eyes. It's more about having fun and playing football against a really good team."
McCoy and Milton are both respecting the decisions made by Tillman, who had 1,081 receiving yards a year ago, and Hyatt, this season's Biletnikoff Award winner who compiled 1,267 yards and a school-record 15 touchdown catches. Milton said the pair "played their heart out for Tennessee."
Now it's McCoy's turn to potentially become the third 1,000-yard receiver for the Vols in as many seasons.
"Without a doubt, I'll be coming back next year," McCoy said. "I want to be the best teammate I can be. I want to set more team goals than personal goals and just go out there and have success."
Fifth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren went through Tennessee's senior day ceremony before the Nov. 12 throttling of Missouri inside Neyland Stadium, but that doesn't mean he's rendered a final verdict on his 2023 status.
The 6-6, 250-pounder from Knoxville could use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that stemmed from the coronavirus outbreak and choose to be a sixth-year Vol, which was a decision fellow tight end Princeton Fant made last December.
"Right now I'm focused on trying to finish this season out the right way," Warren said this week. "There are opportunities here, and there are opportunities beyond here. It will be a matter of sitting down with my family and people I trust and decide what's truly best for me and what will make me happy."
Warren has 12 catches for 163 yards entering the Orange Bowl.
Heupel is happy to have five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava and several other signees going through Orange Bowl workouts, but he doesn't want to put too much on his newcomers too soon.
"For the guys who are here, Nico included, you're not going to walk into the back end of a season, learn an entire playbook and know what to do," Heupel said. "You get a chance to sit in meetings. You get a chance to go out there and do a lot of individual work. You get a chance to compete in some one-on-one situations. As much as anything, I think they learn the tempo of the game.
"They learn what it feels like to be a college athlete. I think it creates an urgency in the way they prepare when they get back to campus."
FINDING NEW HOMES
Two former Vols, receiver Jimmy Calloway and defensive lineman Jordan Phillips, are headed to new locations within the Power Five ranks after entering the NCAA transfer portal.
Calloway actually signed with Louisville on Wednesday, while Phillips committed Wednesday night to Maryland.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.