Quotes: Veteran Wideouts Leading the Way In Preseason Camp

Quotes: Veteran Wideouts Leading the Way In Preseason Camp

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With Practice No. 6 in the books and Tennessee football’s first scrimmage of the fall set for Thursday morning, the Big Orange wide receivers are generating plenty of buzz and excitement in preseason training camp.
 
After the departures of Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman to the NFL, current veterans Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton have stood out to second-year wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope as leaders of the room. The senior duo was productive last fall, combining for 83 catches, 1,229 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. McCoy was key in Tennessee’s final drive against Alabama with a 27-yard reception to set up the game-winning field goal, while Keyton’s 43-yard diving grab against Florida late in the first half will be remembered as one of most spectacular catches in program history.

In his Wednesday post-practice media session, Pope discussed McCoy’s natural transition into a leadership role over the course of the offseason. The California native enters his second year at Tennessee this fall and has received preseason All-SEC recognition from multiple media outlets.
 
“The special thing about Bru is he’s always carried himself that way, right?” Pope said. “When you had Cedric (Tillman), Jalin (Hyatt) and those guys in that room, Bru still carried himself that way … The guys in the room have always respected him. When guys leave, and they go to the next level, it’s an easy transition for a kid like that.
 
“He’s a great leader. He’s truly an alpha. He is going to come to work every single day, and when he’s not going, he’s the biggest cheerleader on the sideline. He’s everything you want in that group, but him and some of those older guys that are leading, they do a great job of helping our young guys come along and learn how we do things.”
 
Entering his fifth year with the program, Keyton has intentionally worked to develop his leadership skills over the past six months with a team-first mindset. Since head coach Josh Heupel‘s arrival in 2021, the Vols’ receiver room has built its reputation on work ethic, and Keyton is doing his part to maintain that standard.
 
“At some point guys start to make it about the group,” Pope said. “You see Ramel, and he’s naturally a quiet kid, but you see him going to coach other guys on the side, even when he’s tired. He just came off the field, but he wants to go coach other guys when they come off to the sideline. He’s willing to stay after with the younger guys and help them get transitioned and things like that with the playbook. You just see selfless acts like that. You see him serve others. I think for a while now he’s come on for us. Again, I think that started off the field and I think that translated to Saturdays. Now, you guys see what you see out of him.”
 
After six practices on Haslam Field and inside the Anderson Training Center, the Vols will head to Neyland Stadium for the first scrimmage of fall camp Thursday morning. The scrimmage is closed to the public and to media, with head coach Josh Heupel‘s press conference scheduled for approximately 11 a.m.
 
Full comments from Pope’s Wednesday media session and select quotes from redshirt senior tight end McCallan Castles, Keyton and junior wide receiver Dont’e Thornton Jr. can be found below.

Tennessee Football Press Conference | Aug. 9, 2023
 
Wide Receivers Coach Kelsey Pope

On if Dont’e Thornton is specifically working in the slot or on the outside too and where he has improved since the spring…
“Yeah, we are working him in different spots. We are doing a good job of trying to use his skill set to put him in some different situations. Just his growth the most was getting in here and learning what we do, learning how we operate on the field and in the building. There is a work ethic. I think that has been brought on by the players. It is expected here now. So, with him learning to play ball, with him getting in here and creating habits, he’s fit right in with these guys and has done a great job so far.”
 
On if Ramel Keyton was a guy that stepped up last year when he needed him and how he has grown…
“Honestly, Ramel (Keyton), he has become a great person. He’s become a more mature kid. He’s become more accountable, and he cares about football. He’s become a way better teammate. I think that’s translated to him being able to take advantage of some opportunities on the field. He does a great job down the field just to catch it for us. This offseason, he’s done a good job of homing in on technique and more of the intermediate underneath game. He’s done a great job for us, and we look forward to him continuing to lead our group.”
 
On how Bru McCoy has stepped up with Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman gone…
“Yeah, I think that’s been a natural transition for him. The special thing about Bru (McCoy) is he’s always carried himself that way, right? When you had Cedric (Tillman), when you had Jalin (Hyatt) and those guys in that room, Bru still carried himself that way. Now those guys were on the outside, they had been here, but the guys in the room have always respected him. So, when those guys leave, and they go to the next level, it’s an easy transition for a kid like that. He’s a great leader. He’s truly an alpha. He is going to come to work every single day, and when he’s not going, he’s the biggest cheerleader on the sideline. He’s everything you want in that group, but him and some of those older guys that are leading, they do a great job of helping our young guys come along and learn how we do things.”
 
On how he would assess Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb
“Those two have been very impressive, both though in their own separate ways. Kaleb (Webb) is a bigger body, big catch radius, strong, powerful kid. Chas (Nimrod) is more agile and very twitchy, but both of those guys have been exceptional. My job for those two, they haven’t seen this thing before on our level, so I have to get those guys consistent. Right now, you see flashes all over the place from both of them. Right now, it’s my job to get those guys more consistent so they are making plays consistently. You see it more on a first-second-third down basis, it is not just showing one series to the next.”
 
On Dont’e Thornton valuing family and how it has been shown in the wide receivers’ room…
“I think that’s a huge reason why we got the kid, I really do. I think when recruiting, you find things about kids that are important to them. I think you have to sell those points. One of the reasons we got him is our relatability as coaches and the players. He came here and he fit right in with the players. To me, that’s a seamless transition because when you’re working hard at a common goal, when that environment is comfortable for you to work hard in, it’s easier for me to give it everything I’ve got. When I’m worried about who’s around or I’m uncomfortable with the people around me, it’s going to be that much harder for me to really strain. So, Dont’e has come in, and he’s like gel, and he’s been a glue guy for our group. They all crack jokes and they’re on social media together. It’s like he’s been here the whole time almost.”
 
On Bru McCoy controlling his in-game emotions…
“He’s a California guy on the outside, but on the inside, he’s one of the most fierce competitors I’ve been around. I think some of that came naturally with Bru. He came here wanting to prove himself. You have to fight a fine line when you’re that type of player. There’s a duality, right? I want to be aggressive, and I want to be urgent, but I can’t press, right? When he got some of those situations last year, he’s like a bull in a china shop. I think this year he’s able to take some of that load off to still be accountable, but you see him play a lot more smoothly. He isn’t as tense because he’s seen a year in, he’s got an expectation and what we do and what this league is, and he’s been awesome for us.”
 
On becoming a dad soon and how he will balance that from a coaching perspective…
“That’s a great point. I think I’m still learning man, I could probably get some pointers from you guys, the dads in the room. For me, I treat these kids just like I would treat my own. I want to make sure I’m giving everything I can to these guys, and then when I’m at home, I’m giving everything I can to my wife and my family. The special thing about that is, these guys are just as involved with my family as I am with theirs. I had three or four guys drop off their favorite kids’ books like The Cat in the Hat and Dr. Seuss series. For me, that’s heartwarming, because it lets you know the guys that you invested in are willing to invest back in you. So that kind of gives me some pride. I take a lot of pride in that. It speaks back to that family feeling we were just talking about. When they see the time and effort that I put into them, they are that much more willing to do that with my son and my kids in the future. That gives you a good feeling. That lets you know you’re going in the right direction. You’ve got a good coach.”
 
On how much pride he has for former players he coached that are now in the NFL…
“I think it’s awesome to see but quite frankly that’s the expectation, right? You hear a lot of people say a lot about the offense and this and that and people make up what they want to in recruiting. This offense helps guys win in one-on-one matchups. That league is all about one-on-one matchups. So, the things that those guys are doing there is an expectation by everybody in this building, that they’re going to win situations like that. We look forward to seeing those guys. Texting back and forth with those guys between games and between practices is awesome. It’s also good to share with your current guys because they saw those guys, where they started. Jalin (Hyatt) and Cedric (Tillman) started their career here and where they are now, I think those experiences you can use as learning tools for the guys you got in your room. So, it’s been awesome.”
 
On how he has seen Squirrel White mature and grown in the offseason…
“Yeah, he’s awesome. He’s turned into a little bit of a comedian. He and Joe Milton were a new duo this summer. That was new to me but seeing him open up and be more talkative and his personality come out, that’s only better for the rest of the room. Squirrel (White) is a vibrant light on and off the field. When he’s around the guys, everybody lights up. When he’s on the field, it’s contagious. Everybody’s willing to play hard. Seeing that personality, (him) showing the room has been awesome, man really good.”
 
On receivers building a relationship off the field with Joe Milton…
“I think that’s always a good thing, when wide receivers and quarterbacks are clicked up like that. I think that helps them build camaraderie off the field. Obviously, when you’re in my foxhole, and I know who you are, I know what you’ve been through, that just makes us in the fourth quarter a lot more deadly, because guys are willing to go to battle for those that they know. They’re right next to him. It’s been cool to see. It’s been cool to see Joe’s (Milton) maturation. When he got here and where he is now, it’s like two completely different people. He’s matured a ton. It’s fun to see him on the practice field. Outside of the physical gifts, you see him interacting with guys in between drives, coaching them up, talking about what they see. He’s not always talking, he’s listening too, which to me shows us a good leader. He’s willing to listen and apply on his end as well. So, seeing all those guys mature has been phenomenal for us and we look forward to continuing to take the jump this training camp.”
 
On how much he battles misconceptions of the offense preparing guys for the NFL…
“A hundred percent. I think what people don’t understand, they try to just kind of make up, but it’s my job as a coach to answer questions in the recruiting process. Our offense puts guys in situations to win one-on-one matchups. Defenses are supposed to stop guys and those one-on-one situations. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day what the scheme is, what the play call is. I’m given a technique to beat a defensive player. He’s given a technique to beat me. If I’m beating him 10 out of 10 times, I can translate that on any level and that’s what it comes down to. Now guys have different skill sets. You show those in recruiting. Guys are put in different spots, you show those in recruiting. At the end of the day, you got to win your matchup, and that’s what it is. That’s what those guys have learned to do and that’s what they showed on Saturday. That’s why they’re successful in the league. It’s no rhyme or reason to why they’re doing it besides a transition from what they did in college.”
 
On Ramel Keyton changing his number to No. 9…
“Yeah, it probably happened the first couple of days. I think sometimes guys need new numbers. I’m all about looking good, feeling good, but at the end of the day, we got to get results. If you are wearing 99, and you’re the best player in the country, you’re probably going to be 99. So, Ramel (Keyton) has been awesome with that transition. He hadn’t missed a beat. He looks just like the old number 80 there. He’s improved in some areas. So, I look forward to seeing more from nine on the field.”
 
On what point he realized the type of player Ramel Keyton could be…
“I think it was last spring. I think we had a guy go down and Ramel kind of transitioned into more of a starter’s role last spring. I think it was at that point when you started to see him play and show what he can really do. The funny thing about that is that life comes full circle, we get to the season, and the exact same thing happened, the guy in front of him went down. He was a reserve. He came in and made a bunch of plays for us in critical situations. I think that’s why it’s so important in practice to push these guys to their limit. When guys go down, or you have a guy out for a day or two, you have to treat the next guy like he is a starter. That way during the season when those things happen, you don’t skip a beat, guys don’t flinch. They just continue to go and roll. We can truly create a unit that way. I think we’re getting to that point to where our unit is becoming more holistic, where we can plug and play guys wherever.”
 
On what he has seen from Nate Spillman and Nathan Leacock
“Both of those guys have been great in the classroom. Both of those guys still have some work to do on the field, but they both have traits. They’re both physically gifted. They’re both determined and want to be good and that’s really all you need. We’ve seen a lot of guys in our room get developed. If guys are competitive and determined, we can develop you and you can be as good as you want to be. They have shown every tool in the world to be successful in what we do and in this league.”
 
On when he realized Ramel Keyton was more out of his shell and a better person in the locker room…
“You see their interactions, right? At some point guys start to make it about the group. You see Ramel and he’s naturally a quiet kid, but you see him going to coach other guys on the side, even when he’s tired. He just came off the field, but he wants to go coach other guys when they come off to the sideline. He’s willing to stay after with the younger guys and help them get transitioned and things like that with the playbook. You just see selfless acts like that. You see him serve others. I think for a while now he’s come on for us. Again, I think that started off the field and I think that translated to Saturdays. Now, you guys see what you see out of him.”
 
On some examples where Dont’e Thornton has shown his potential as a wide receiver in this offense…
“So, from Donte, what you get is you get a big, big, targeted receiver. A guy that can run, a guy that can bend that is agile. We had a couple of days early in camp, where it’s just helmets and shorts, and he’s coming across the middle and it’s a big target for the quarterback coming across the middle field with speed. He’s able to catch that thing and continue to run. For me, having guys like that with that ability with that length, being able to run the way he can, is awesome to see. It is a completely different product than what we had last year in Jalin (Hyatt) and sometimes Cedric (Tillman). He’s kind of a mixture of both of those guys in some ways. There have been a bunch of times this camp where you see him and your eyes get big. Maybe I look at coach Heupel and he looks at me. He’s a good addition to us. Him and all of the other guys have been awesome this camp. We just look forward to those guys continuing to push the envelope, continuing to work. Hopefully that process is where it needs to be when we start.”

RS-Senior TE McCallan Castles

On how complicated the offense is given the pace they play at…
“Honestly, the offense itself, once you get it down, is not super hard to do. It’s that pace that you have to be able to look at the sideline to know what you have to do right then and there. Once it clicks, it’s definitely a lot easier. You see Jacob (Warren), he’s been doing it for years. He’s locked in, ready to go. You see the young guys that are kind of still thinking about it. Ethan, you can tell, I think me and Ethan (Davis) have had almost the same transition. You’ve kind of gone through that awkward phase where you’re trying to figure out what you have to do. Now, he’s lined up and he’s ready to go, I’m lined up. You can tell on the practice field we play a lot faster and more efficient in the plays.”
 
On what excites him about this year’s offense…
“I think it’s just everybody is ready to reload. We’ve got guys at every position coming in that can play. You can just see it on the practice field, every day we’re getting better and more explosive against our own defense. Once we get against Virginia or somebody, it’s going to come to fruition. I think we’re just going to keep going one week at a time and just steamrolling through.”
 
On defensive players that have impressed him…
“I have to shout out Arion Carter. That dude fills holes fast and he is going to lace you in the hole. I’ve never seen a dude come in so ready to play from a young guy standpoint. The other guys, Aaron Beasley and Keenan Pili, that’s as veteran as you can get at linebacker. They don’t do anything wrong, they’re always there to make plays, super solid. Jaylen McCollough, he is so solid. Special teams and everything he does, super sound technique. He’s always high energy, ready to coach everybody up.”

Senior WR Ramel Keyton

On the difference of the type of balls coming from Hendon Hooker’s hands and Joe Milton’s hands…
“You have to really be sharp with your eyes, and you have to know it’s going to come with a little more pace with Joe. There’s going to be more zip to it. You’re going to see the ball, but it’s more like having stronger hands to be able to catch it. But once you catch it consistently, it’ll come natural.”
 
On the work ethic in the Wide Receiver’s room since the departure of key players from last year…
“I feel like as a group, we all have the work ethic that it takes to succeed, and we push each other to the standard that we set. It’s like organic, the whole room. It’s not just one person like me, or Bru, not just (Nathan Leacock), it’s everyone in the room. Everybody is striving to be better, everybody is trying to be great. I feel like as a room, we keep pushing each other. We’re going to be great.”
 
On if this season brings a sense of this is his time to shine and how he plans to capitalize on it…
“I wouldn’t say it is necessarily my time to shine. I feel like it’s our time to really go out there and prove what we worked on and what we did all summer, and really what we did from January to this point. Now just I feel like every time we go out to practice, we feel like we’re playing in a game and we take that approach like we’re playing Alabama, Georgia, Florida, in practice so I feel like if we keep that consistently we’ll reach the goal that we set.”

Junior WR Dont’e Thornton Jr.

On if the receiver production is a reason he came to Tennessee and how the offense is so receiver friendly…
“That is definitely a big reason for why I came here. The biggest part about this offense is that Coach Heupel wants to throw the ball. If you look back and see it, he threw the ball a lot of the time throughout his first two years. It was the most any head coach or offensive minded coach, threw the ball with success in their first two seasons. If you’re a receiver, this will be the best place for you to be.”
 
On his relationship with Kelsey Pope
“I’d say I have a great relationship with Coach Pope. With me being away from home, he’s like that dad that you have, that can coach you on the field and also be there for you off the field. I definitely depend on Coach Pope a lot. He’s always there for me.”
 
On how he has built a relationship with Joe Milton III
“Me and Joe have a great relationship. From the moment I got here, me and Joe have been clicking and getting together. Even on nights where I feel like I don’t understand the play, I can call Joe or go over to his house, he’ll walk me through it and then we’ll be good to go. I’d definitely say we have a great relationship.”

-UT Athletics

Vols WR Ramel Keyton / Credit: UT Athletics

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