Jimmy’s blog: Tennessee’s offense has thrived without Tillman

By Jimmy Hyams

Entering this season, Tennessee’s two best offensive weapons were a transfer quarterback and a receiver who had been overlooked for three years.

Quarterback Hendon Hooker, who began his career at Virginia Tech, has been magnificent. He has 18 touchdown passes against one interception, leads the SEC in pass efficiency and ranks among the top three favorites for the Heisman Trophy.

Tillman, who caught just eight passes in his first three seasons, was a preseason All-SEC selection hoping to build on his 1,000-yard, 12-touchdown season of a year ago.

Tillman has one touchdown reception and hasn’t played since being injured against Akron four games ago.

But without Tillman playing in three SEC games, without his expected production, Tennessee is 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation with an offense that appears unstoppable.

Who’d have thunk it?

What Tennessee has done without Tillman is remarkable.

It’s a testament to Hooker, to the other receivers and to UT’s offensive braintrust.

Hooker has continued to play at an elite level without his best receiver. 

Jalin Hyatt has developed into the best receiver in the SEC with a nation’s-best 12 touchdown catches and eight receptions of at least 40 yards. That’s more than 11 SEC teams this year. Only Kentucky and Arkansas have as many as eight 40-yard pass plays this season.

And the Vols offensive brain trust has schemed ways to get Hyatt open and ripped through defenses at a record pace. The Vols are averaging 571 total yards per game, almost 100 yards more than the UT single-season record set in 1997.

You can imagine what Tennessee’s offense would have done with Tillman.

But then again, could it be any better?

That is hard to imagine.

Tillman could make his return against No. 19 Kentucky on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

If he does, how does that impact UT’s attack?

Does Hooker target Tillman 18 times like he did at Pitt? Is the distribution equal among Tillman, Hyatt and Bru McCoy? Is there a chemistry issue? How many snaps does Ramel Keyton get? Which wideout does a defense bracket?

Vols receivers coach Kelsey Pope says the return of Tillman makes UT’s offense even more dangerous.

“The more guys you have that can make plays, the more dangerous you are,’’ Pope said.

And Tillman makes UT’s offense more “lethal,’’ Pope said.

It’s hard to imagine UT’s offense being more lethal than it is.

Then again, who thought the Vols would average over 43 points and almost 550 total yards against three ranked SEC opponents without Tillman?

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