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Auburn Athletics photo by Lauren Barnard / New Tennessee receivers coach Kodi Burns spent the past five seasons at Auburn, helping the Tigers to a pair of wins over rival Alabama and to the 2017 SEC West title.

All five new offensive assistants under Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel participated in a Zoom call earlier this week, where they expressed their excitement in working for such a tradition-rich program and in building an attack that will be both entertaining and productive.

All five seemed genuine in their euphoria and gratification, but nobody has the recent weeks to prove it like Kodi Burns.

Burns this past December was the receivers coach at Auburn, his alma mater. He had been a receiver on the 2010 national championship team, and his five years as a Gus Malzahn assistant had yielded two Iron Bowl triumphs and the 2017 Southeastern Conference West Division title, but Malzahn was fired after a two-touchdown win at Mississippi State capped a rather bland 6-4 regular season.

"I've learned a lot since being in this league, and obviously this is the SEC for a reason," Burns said. "It's the best conference. You have the best players. It's the best football played across the country, so being let go at Auburn was a little bit of a disappointment but not necessarily a shock, because you know the expectations that come with this league."

Burns helped coach Auburn during its lackluster Citrus Bowl loss to Northwestern but wasn't retained by new Tigers coach Bryan Harsin, though he found a landing spot a month ago with Heupel at the University of Central Florida. Of course, Heupel was just days away from being hired by the Volunteers, and Burns was happy to join him on a second occasion.

"The last few weeks have definitely been crazy," Burns said. "I left Auburn and then headed to UCF, and when I got to Orlando it was warm and sunny, and I was excited about the role because I know what Coach Heupel does offensively. I was excited to coach those receivers, but then obviously Coach Heupel comes to Tennessee, and I have the opportunity to come here and be a part of this staff.

"It's just a blessing. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I'm excited to be here and ready to get to work."

Burns has encountered an interesting position room. The two most experienced receivers from last year, Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson, have moved on, with Palmer declining the NCAA's extra year of eligibility and pursuing his NFL dreams, and with Johnson transferring to UCF roughly a week before Burns was hired.

Velus Jones, the graduate transfer from Southern California, will certainly be looked to for leadership, though the premier star-of-the-future candidate is Jalin Hyatt, who amassed 20 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. Hyatt was among three touted receivers Tennessee signed in 2020, but Jimmy Calloway and Malachi Wideman combined on just three receptions for 44 yards.

"We lost a couple of guys who in the last few years were very productive, so we're going to be young and very inexperienced once again for this league," Burns said, "but there is also potential, so we have to just continue to grow and develop these guys into what we want them to be for our team and for our offense. It's going to be a challenge, and I'm excited about that challenge."

Burns is both eager to see what Heupel can do with Tennessee's current components — "the numbers at UCF speak for themselves," he said — and ready to form a bond with his players, adding that it wasn't that long ago when he was an SEC receiver. Heupel thought enough of Burns to hire him in January and February, so the compliments flow both ways.

"Kodi Burns is a guy I actually recruited (as Oklahoma's quarterbacks coach) coming out of high school before he went to Auburn," Heupel said, "so I've had a long track record with him. He was a great, unselfish player, and he's a guy who has just done a phenomenal job on the recruiting side of it and also developing players.

"He's played in this league and understands this league, and I'm excited about having him as a part of our staff."

 

G-Day plan revealed

Georgia will hold its G-Day spring game April 17 at Sanford Stadium with 20-25% capacity. The Bulldogs played just three home games this past season, with attendance listed at 20,524 at the 92,746-seat facility.

Tickets for G-Day are $10 and will be handled digitally, the school announced Thursday, and all proceeds from ticket sales will go to Athens-area charities.

 

Alabama adds Valai

Alabama coach Nick Saban announced the hiring of Jay Valai as cornerbacks coach.

Valai spent this past season in the same role at Texas but then worked 12 days at the University of Houston before being hired away by the Philadelphia Eagles. He stayed just 11 days with the NFL team before accepting Saban's offer.

"The decision to leave the Philadelphia Eagles was one of the hardest choices I've ever made," Valai said in a release, "but the chance to work for Coach Saban, who is one of the all-time great head coaches and defensive minds, is truly a special opportunity."

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

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