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Tennessee's Tyler Byrd (10) breaks loss for a long gain on a pass reception. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

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KNOXVILLE — Tyler Byrd always envisioned that his college football future would be in the secondary.

Instead the freshman is thriving for Tennessee at a position that isn't second nature.

Byrd is coming off his most productive game as a wide receiver for the Volunteers against Texas A&M last week, when he totaled 71 yards on five touches in the double-overtime loss.

"For sure, being a defensive guy, I definitely miss it," Byrd admitted with a laugh Tuesday, "but I'm just here to embrace my role as a wide receiver."

When Tennessee flipped the nation's No. 1-ranked (by ESPN) athlete in the 2016 class from his longtime commitment to the home-state Miami Hurricanes, it always appeared likely Byrd would start his college career playing defensive back.

However, the roster dictated Byrd's skills were needed on offense, where Tennessee was shorter on depth.

"Coach (Butch Jones) called me and he asked me could I play offense," Byrd said. "I said whatever will help the team is what I'll do. I just embraced the role of being a wideout instead of a defensive back in college and just ran with it."

"I think I was more of a defensive back, but now just being here and embracing the role as a wide receiver with the great mentors of (receivers) Josh Smith, Josh Malone and (quarterback) Josh Dobbs, I'm just embracing that role as a wide receiver now."

Tennessee didn't know when it made the decision on Byrd it would lose All-SEC cornerback Cameron Sutton in the first quarter of this season's third game, but Byrd likely was going to make an immediate impact wherever he played. His talent is clear, and Byrd has displayed his speed and shiftiness on each of his nine receptions.

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"He continues to grow each game, just getting him the ball with different looks and getting him into space," Dobbs said. "He always makes the first guy miss, it seems like. It was a big part of our offense, just getting him the ball in space along with the other receivers. It's definitely great to have him as an addition."

Through three games Byrd caught only two passes, but he had a mini-breakout with a three-catch, 40-yard game in his SEC debut against Florida, when he said the game began to click for him.

On the first play of Tennessee's game-tying drive against the Aggies, Byrd caught a pass over the middle, spun by a defender and broke free for 43 yards.

"It's just a gift," Byrd said, "a God-given just to be able to make the first person miss and get as much yardage as I can."

Two plays later freshman Brandon Johnson made the first catch of his career, and three plays later the Vols were in the end zone and sending the game into overtime.

"We've put them in pressure situations throughout practice and throughout fall camp, and they've responded well," Dobbs said. "They came in and made catches in those situations, so I had 100 percent confidence that they would in the game.

"I talk to them throughout the game. I've been talking to Brandon that when your number's called and your time comes, you've got to be ready to step up and make a play. He did that. He had a couple big catches to help us progress and move down the field.

"They understand that and they understand the expectation is when they come in the game, the ball's going to be coming their way and they're going to have to make a play. There's no excuses if they don't, and they definitely responded well, which is great to see."

On his weekly radio show earlier this season Jones said Byrd's future could include playing both offense and defense.

"I would definitely be open to it," Byrd said. "I think right now it's learning the offense and being really confident in the offense. I think when I'm really confident in the offense and able to play as fast as I can in the offense, then the defensive side will just come in."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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