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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman set a program record late last season with at least one touchdown catch in seven consecutive games.

Motivation has come in multiple waves for Tennessee fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman.

It began in 2018, when the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas was the nation's No. 1,677 prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

"I don't know if I was a two-star or a three-star," Tillman said last month at the Southeastern Conference's media days event in Atlanta. "That motivated me a lot, especially when I was a little younger. I was like, 'Surely there are not more than a thousand players better than me. Man, I must not be that good.'

"It kind of motivates me even to this day."

A second round of motivation arrived last year, when Tillman entered the season with just eight career catches for the Volunteers. He flourished beyond even the most optimistic of expectations, racking up 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the program's first 1,000-yard receiver since Justin Hunter in 2012.

Tillman had at least one touchdown reception in each of the last seven games, setting a program record, and capped his season with a seven-catch, 150-yard performance that yielded three touchdowns in the Music City Bowl loss to Purdue.

"It was just a fresh start and a new opportunity," he said. "I knew things were different last year the first day we got on the practice field. It was way different than anything I had ever done before, but I was excited for the challenge. It worked out pretty good for us."

The latest motivation for Tillman is combating the fact he is no longer a secret. Tennessee's offensive eruption in Josh Heupel's debut year transpired with Tillman, Velus Jones and JaVonta Payton as the three dominant receivers, but Jones and Payton have moved on, leaving Tillman as the primary target.

Tillman is already expecting added attention this season — "The best receivers in this conference get double-teamed or face the best corner. It's why my route running needs to be perfect," he said — and believes there are several candidates ready to step up and help, an opinion echoed by offensive coordinator Alex Golesh.

"I think it will all kind of play itself out as it goes," Golesh said. "A year ago, Ced was a guy nobody knew about, and Velus was a guy nobody knew about, so I think it will kind of play itself out. Whether people will feel like they need to roll coverage his way or do something unique to take him away — obviously if it becomes a one-man show, that would be really hard offensively.

"In this system, looking back over the years, it's kind of played itself out. We feel good with who is going to be opposite of him, whether that's with one guy or a group of guys. This is as deep as we've been in the slot, and there are a bunch of guys who have to prove something in that room, but it was that way a year ago."

Tennessee's only receiver ever to assemble two 1,000-yard seasons was Joey Kent in 1995-96 with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Tillman has the chance to match Kent this season, even with the added attention coming.

"You've just got to go compete," Tillman said. "Through those first four games last year, I didn't have the best numbers, and I kind of took off in those last six or seven, so I'm not looking so much at the numbers as I am playing hard.

"The numbers will come."

TENNESSEE

Last season: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)

Opener: Sept. 1 vs. Ball State in Knoxville (7 p.m. on SEC Network)

Fun fact: Tennessee ranked second in the SEC in scoring last season (39.3 points per game) despite ranking last in time of possession (24 minutes and 29 seconds).

 

Dixon commits

Former Clemson running back Lyn-J Dixon announced Wednesday he will transfer to Tennessee.

The 5-10, 194-pounder out of Taylor County in Butler, Georgia, was a Vols commitment under Butch Jones but signed with the Tigers in 2018. Dixon's best season was 2019, when he rushed 104 times for 635 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and six touchdowns, but his last two seasons contained just 52 combined carries.

Dixon left Clemson last November and transferred to West Virginia, where he competed this spring, but he entered the transfer portal again earlier this summer.

Tennessee has Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright as its top two running backs but recently lost redshirt sophomore Len'Neth Whitehead for the year due to an upper-body injury. Freshmen Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson have been getting plenty of reps, with Dixon having the potential to join the mix by the end of this week.

 

Taking responsibility

The Vols finished dead last in pass defense among SEC teams last season, allowing 273.2 aerial yards per game, and second-year linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary believes his position was as responsible as anybody for that.

"We're tied to coverage — 95% of the coverages we have, the linebackers are involved in it — so we would never point a finger at the secondary or the D-line as far as the pass rush," Jean-Mary said Wednesday. "We have to do a better job in getting to spots in coverage and finding receivers in our zone.

"Also, when you go back and watch film, there were times we were in position to make plays and didn't."

 

Tickets selling

Tennessee announced Wednesday that 58,871 season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season, more than 5% above its established goal of 56,000.

New season tickets have accounted for 16,781 of that total. Tennessee's previous high of new season tickets since such information was tracked was 7,502 heading into the 2015 campaign.

 

Odds and ends

Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee is scheduled to meet with the media after Thursday's practice, with the next media availability set for Monday with defensive line coach Rodney Garner. ... Jean-Mary on Juwan Mitchell, the Texas transfer who played in only three games last season: "Juwan has been a model of consistency these first three days, and it's really the first time in a year and a half to two years that he's felt healthy. He's got all the surgeries behind him."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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