Nov 6, 2021; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (1) catches a pass and runs the ball in for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Fans from Rocky Top are obviously rooting for Velus Jones Jr. at the NFL Draft Combine. After all, he had a great splash his senior season, thriving in Josh Heupel’s system to be able to draw the attention of national scouts. However, his success is actually concerning for Tennessee football when looking ahead.
The Vols lost Jones and No. 2 wideout JaVonta Payton from this past year. Heupel should have no trouble replacing Payton, but Jones, who came out of the slot and was second on the team in receiving while becoming an All-SEC return specialist, brought unique skills to the table.
Initially, consensus was a guy like Jimmy Calloway or maybe Jalin Hyatt could replace him. However, Jones’ production at the combine shows it’s not that simple. He ran a 4.31 40-yard dash Thursday, second among all receivers at the combine.
Fastest wide receiver group at the Combine since 2003. 🔥
📺: #NFLCombine continues at 4pm ET on @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/VNpNFI6HvU
— NFL (@NFL) March 4, 2022
What this means is a lot of Jones’ success last year was based on his raw skills and abilities. That raw talent can’t just be replaced with experience, regardless of what Calloway, Hyatt or somebody else brings to the table, and even if experience helps, it wouldn’t outweigh the experience Jones had last year as a fifth-year senior.
Simply put, without Jones’ speed, Tennessee football may not be able to replace at all Jones in brought to the table. In 2021, he caught 62 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns, averaged 27.3 yards on 23 kickoff returns while running one back for a touchdown and averaged over 15 yards on 18 punt return.
That was all in the slot. Combining it with what we saw from Jones at the combine, the 6’0″ 200-pound playmaker who joined UT in 2020 after transferring from the USC Trojans generated his own success in that system. It wasn’t generated for him by Heupel’s schemes.
Now you have to wonder if a guy like Cedric Tillman was so productive on the outside because Jones commanded so much attention inside with his speed. He clearly showed a ton of ability on yards after catch, but something like his 40-time makes that clear.
Is there any way Heupel can offset that? Calloway did show he has solid awareness with the ball in his hands and can find openings to turn short passes into big gains. That’s a huge plus for the Vols, and it suggests he’ll be the next guy up.
Still, it’s unlikely Calloway brings Jones’ speed to the table. Meanwhile, Hyatt showed himself in the past to be more of an undersized wideout, so you could see him become a better fit to complement Tillman on the outside. That doesn’t mean he can’t play in the slot, but it’s hard ot see him matching Jones’ production either.
If Heupel can’t match Jones’ speed, his best move to keep his passing offense going may be to focus on size. He’s got lots of guys 6’2″ and above in his system, and if he put one in the slot, Hendon Hooker could just have lots of big targets to throw the ball to downfield.
It’s not the end of the world for Heupel and Tennessee football, but it looks like the Vols won’t just be able to plug another body in to replace Jones. They may have to tweak their system a bit, and without Kodi Burns to develop the next guys to fit that mold, the concern is even greater.
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