Dont'e Thornton thrilled to be with Vols and ‘best receiver room in the nation’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior receiver Dont'e Thornton, a transfer from Oregon, runs a route during a practice earlier this preseason.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior receiver Dont'e Thornton, a transfer from Oregon, runs a route during a practice earlier this preseason.

The new guy is a glue guy.

Dont'e Thornton continues to immerse himself into Tennessee's football program after spending his first two seasons at Oregon. The 6-foot-5, 214-pound junior receiver enrolled in January and has displayed enough strengths to show he can join Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White to form the nucleus of a position group that could successfully move on from Jalen Hyatt and Cedric Tillman in Josh Heupel's offense.

"With Dont'e, what you've got is a big-targeted receiver, a guy who can run, and a guy who can bend and is agile," receivers coach Kelsey Pope said Wednesday in a news conference. "It's a completely different product from what we had last year in Jalen and Ced. He's kind of a mixture of both of those guys in some ways.

"There have been a bunch of times this camp when your eyes just get big, and maybe I'll look at Heup or he looks at me. He's a good addition."

The Volunteers held their seventh preseason practice Wednesday and are scheduled to scrimmage Thursday morning inside Neyland Stadium.

Thornton is among the most coveted players Tennessee has obtained via the transfer portal, having been the nation's No. 57 overall signee in the 2021 class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. He played in 25 of 26 games and made five starts for the Ducks, averaging a team-best 21.5 yards per catch last year on 17 receptions, but what has impressed Pope the most is his ability to fit right in.

"When you're working hard at a common goal and that environment is comfortable to work hard in, it's easier to give it everything you've got," Pope said. "If you're worried about who's around you and you're uncomfortable with who's around you, it's going to be that much harder to strain. Dont'e has come in and been a glue guy for that group.

"They all crack jokes and are on social media together. It's like he's been there the whole time."

Thornton said Wednesday that he has been working more at slot receiver but is learning the outside roles as well. White started in the slot during the Orange Bowl triumph over Clemson as a freshman last December, amassing nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, and Thornton said he has been very helpful.

Another big help has been sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III.

"From the moment I got here, Joe and I have been clicking and getting together," said Thornton, who played at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore before heading west to begin his college career. "Even on nights when I might not understand a play, I can call Joe or go over to his house, and he'll walk me through it."

The Vols still possess their share of speed despite Hyatt now competing for the NFL's New York Giants, with White having been clocked at 23.4 mph. Thornton said Wednesday that he was clocked at 24.3 during a game last season, but what impresses Thornton more than Tennessee's receiver speed is its receiver depth.

Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb enter this season as redshirt freshmen vying for playing time, while Nathan Leacock and Nate Spillman are promising true freshmen.

"In my opinion, we have the best receiver room in the nation," Thornton said. "My reason behind that is because even though we have the group that's going to be starting, our first, second and third groups can be in there, and there won't be any drop-off.

"Each receiver in that room knows exactly what to do."


Bonding moments

Coaches and players often talk about forming bonds with one another, and Pope gave a strong example just just days away from becoming a first-time father.

"The special thing is that these guys are just as involved with my family as I am with theirs," he said. "I've had three or four guys drop off their favorite kids' books — 'The Cat in the Hat' and the Dr. Seuss series. For me, that's heartwarming, because it lets you know the guys you invest in are willing to invest back in you.

"I take a lot of pride in that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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