By Jimmy Hyams
After Jalin Hyatt caught a career-high 11 passes against Pitt, he said he had done nothing.
After Hyatt had a career-high 166 receiving yards against Akron, he shrugged it off.
“We haven’t got into SEC play yet,’’ Hyatt said after the Vols annihilated Akron 63-6 Saturday night at sold out Neyland Stadium. “I want to keep my head down and keep working.’’
Hyatt’s work has paid off so far. The fleet junior has burst onto the scene in splendid fashion with a team-high 18 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He grabbed scoring passes of 57 and 48 yards against Akron while teammate Cedric Tillman nursed an apparent knee injury suffered in the second quarter.
Despite his brilliant play, Hyatt remains humble and hungry, perhaps the result of a disappointing 2021 season when he suffered several drops and was benched after Game Four.
“We’ve got to keep improving if this is gonna be a big year for us,’’ Hyatt said.
After one of Hyatt’s scores, he made a bee-line to receivers coach Kelsey Pope, who was an offensive analyst last year who helped with the wideouts. Last year, Hyatt dropped several passes and was basically benched after the Florida game as Velus Jones Jr. was moved into the slot position.
“When I was struggling (last year) he was trying to get my confidence back up,’’ said Hyatt. “I love Coach Pope. I think he’s the best receivers coach in the country.’’
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said there isn’t a secret sauce to Hyatt’s rapid rise from a year ago.
“No shortcuts,’’ Heupel said. “He’s a guy that wanted to be great a year ago and worked this offseason to be great. Our coaching staff trusts him. He’s made some big-time plays.’’
Hyatt’s role might increase if Tillman doesn’t return soon. His status is unknown for the Florida game at this time.
“It’s an amazing thing to see,’’ quarterback Hendon Hooker said of Hyatt’s surge in play. “For everyone the lights come on at a different time. He wants to get better. He watches film and asks questions.
“I’m extremely proud of the growth he’s made.’’
After the Ball State game, Hyatt said he predicted he would score UT’s first touchdown of the season.
This time, he said he told his dad before the game he would score twice.
“I told Hyatt he might have two today,’’ Hooker said, smiling.
Hyatt wasn’t the only highlight for the Vols against Akron. Jaylen Wright had 96 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Freshman Dylan Sampson also scored twice, as he gained 58 yards on eight tries. The two running backs got more action after Jabari Small suffered an undisclosed injury on the game’s second play.
Hooker was a crisp 14 of 18 for 298 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 37 for his career to move into seventh place on UT’s all-time list. He has also thrown a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive games, trailing only Heath Shuler’s mark of 18.
Backup Joe Milton continued to impress, hitting 4 of 5 passes for 112 yards and two more scores as UT’s signal-callers were a combined 20 of 25 for 410 yards and four scores.
Tennessee rolled up 676 yards – fifth most in school history. UT has had 600 yards in a game 17 times, three under Heupel.
The offense wasn’t the only bright spot.
Tennessee’s defense held Akron without a touchdown and allowed just 35 yards on 24 rushes. UT also recorded four sacks.
“Our confidence is really high,’’ said safety Jalen McCullough. “But we can’t settle. We’ve got to keep working. Florida (Saturday’s opponent) will try to come in here and light up the scoreboard.’’
Tennessee’s third-down defense has improved remarkably. Akron converted on 1 of 13 tries. Pitt managed just 4 of 18. That’s 5 of 31 in the last two games for a defense that allowed 42% conversion on third downs last year – one of the works marks in the country.
McCullough said UT’s fast striking offense has helped the defense, especially when the Vols take leads of 14-0 or 21-0 or 28-0.
“It puts the opposing offense on the defensive,’’ McCullough said.
That will be the goal against Florida.