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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee sixth-year senior Velus Jones Jr. leads the Volunteers with 342 receiving yards, having already topped the 280 he amassed last season.

There can't be too many assistant coaches in Southeastern Conference football having a better season than Kodi Burns, who oversees receivers for the surging Tennessee Volunteers.

Sixth-year senior Velus Jones Jr., fifth-year senior JaVonta Payton and redshirt junior Cedric Tillman provided Burns with three veterans who in some ways resembled the Island of Misfit Toys. Jones was known more for his return skills after his four seasons at Southern California and his first year in Knoxville, while Payton faded as last season transpired in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense at Mississippi State.

Then there was Tillman, who had just eight catches the past three seasons with the Vols, but that trio is where Burns has placed his trust as the Vols (4-2, 2-1 SEC) begin the second half of their regular season Saturday by hosting No. 13 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1).

"When you get in the SEC, you want to go with experience," Burns said Tuesday in a news conference, "and I think that's paid off."

Has it ever.

Jones, Payton and Tillman are flourishing for the explosive Vols, having combined on 13 receptions for 201 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend's 45-20 thrashing of South Carolina. It was more of the same the previous Saturday at Missouri, as the threesome combined on 12 catches for 187 yards and three scores in a 62-24 runaway.

The emergence of those three has limited playing time for younger receivers such as sophomores Jimmy Calloway and Jalin Hyatt, though Hyatt did provide an acrobatic touchdown reception against the Gamecocks.

Jones was Tennessee's top returning receiver with 280 yards last season, but the 6-foot, 200-pounder from Mobile has blown by that this year with 342 yards. His three receiving touchdowns already match last season's total, and this year's success has transpired following a move into the slot role.

"Confidence is not an issue with Velus," a smiling Burns said. "He really does believe he's good, and he is a really good player. He's a veteran guy who you can move from outside to inside, and he's been very productive in the slot. He's almost like a running back with the ball in his hands, because he's really hard to tackle and he plays through contact."

Said Jones: "It's all about preparation, practice, staying locked in, watching extra film in practice and just buying in, honestly. That's what the seniors are doing so far. We're just going to keep striding."

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AP photo by L.G. Patterson / Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver JaVonta Payton, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State, hauls in a 35-yard touchdown pass in the 62-24 rout of Missouri on Oct. 2. Payton has scored a touchdown in four consecutive games entering Saturday night's sold-out showdown against Ole Miss.

Payton thought he found his stride in last season's opener, when the the 6-1, 180-pounder from Nashville had six receptions for 122 yards in Mississippi State's 44-34 upset win at LSU. He would collect only 103 yards the rest of the year but has thrived since changing SEC locales, snagging nine catches for 216 yards — a whopping 24 yards per reception — and four touchdowns.

"JaVonta Payton didn't really get the opportunities he wanted at another school," Burns said. "One thing we like in this offense is receivers who can run and can really blow the top off of coverage. I think you've seen that in these games. All his touchdowns have been big, big plays when he's getting behind the defense.

"It didn't take long when he stepped on campus to know that JaVonta can be a big-time playmaker for us."

Payton has scored a touchdown in each of the last four games on receptions from 29, 75, 35 and 39 yards out.

"I didn't really come in thinking that I would be catching deep balls as much as I've been," Payton said. "It's just the situation I'm in."

Perhaps nobody has benefited more from Burns than Tillman, a 6-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas who had three catches last season. Burns called Tillman's eight catches over three years a "crazy stat," but that stat is being left behind as Tillman has amassed 16 catches for 210 yards and two scores this year.

"He's a guy I've been talking about since the spring as far as being a problem for defenses," Burns said. "Whenever you're that big and can run and have good ball skills — he's a good player, and I think it just came down to him getting reps."

Burns is a former Auburn quarterback who switched to receiver and starred on the 2010 national championship team. He spent the past five seasons coaching at his alma mater, helping the Tigers to the 2017 SEC West title and to a pair of victories over Alabama, but he was out of a job when Gus Malzahn was not retained last December following his eighth season.

Tennessee has been a positive change of scenery for Burns, and he has done his part to make the Vols appealing to watch and one of the league's best stories in 2021.

"It's been exciting," Jones said of Tennessee's rebound from last season's 3-7 collapse. "Scoring is fun. It's an amazing feeling. Everybody is smiling. You can just feel the energy, and you love that feeling, so we've just got to keep scoring."

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AP photo by L.G. Patterson / Tennessee redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman tallied just eight receptions in his first three seasons with the Volunteers but has nine catches for 210 yards so far this year.

 

Not messing around

Although redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks in last week's win, he was flagged for yet another personal foul. His latest miscue was for roughing the passer.

"The personal fouls, which we've talked about — it has to go away," Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said Tuesday. "We've basically stated that if the personal fouls don't go away, we can't put him in the game. Those are going to be the difference when we're in tighter games, and we just can't do that."

 

Point of no return

Jean-Mary also elaborated on Juwan Mitchell's season-ending shoulder surgery.

"Obviously it's a loss," he said. "He's been banged up basically since we started camp. We tried to rotate to keep some of the pounding off of him, but it kind of got to a point of no return.

"He was one of the more experienced players we had, but he was basically playing with one arm."

Mitchell collected seven tackles and a pass breakup in the 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 11, which was his busiest performance since transferring from Texas.

 

Odds and ends

Tennessee has announced that all 102,455 tickets have been sold for Saturday night, representing the first Neyland Stadium sellout since the 41-0 loss to Georgia in 2017. ... In games against SEC opposition, the Vols lead the league in total offense (526.0 yards per game), turnover margin (plus-5) and offensive plays of 30-plus yards (11). ... Tennessee's 52 tackles for loss rank first in the SEC, first among Power Five programs and second in the Bowl Subdivision.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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