There is no secret how important the 2019 recruiting class is to Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers. In multiple interviews this season, Pruitt referenced needing to get his own guys into the program before they could compete at the level they wanted. While Pruitt and Company recruited far better than anticipated during their brief time with the Vols in the 2018 cycle, the combination of a 4-8 season and the handicaps resulting from an odyssey of a coaching search clearly hampered them. The 2019 class represents Jeremy Pruitt’s first class at Tennessee in which he and his staff have had a full year to assemble the players they want. Due to the talent of these players and the emphasis Pruitt has placed on wanting to get his own players into the program, expect to see the young men from this class on the field early and often. Here's an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. We continue our Player Profile series by looking at Marietta, Georgia product Ramel Keyton.
The Tennessee offense has struggled at times over the past two seasons, and while a lack of SEC caliber talent has been blamed for many of those struggles, there is one position group at Tennessee that any SEC head coach would be thrilled to have: The Wide Receivers. Tennessee is historically known as Wide Receiver U, and though Clemson has made a strong push in recent years to claim that title, the Vols won’t be giving it up without a fight, particularly with the players they have on the roster this season. The Vols boast two of the biggest, strongest, and most physically gifted pass catchers in the conference in Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. The pair of big, rising seniors have different skill sets, but they are each a nightmare to cover one-on-one, have incredible leaping ability, and have ball skills that allow them to routinely make spectacular, high point grabs over defensive backs. When the Tennessee offense was performing at its best last season, it was when Jennings and Callaway were being steadily fed the ball on the perimeter. Fellow rising senior Brandon Johnson also put up solid numbers, while rising junior Josh Palmer had a bit of a breakout season, flashing ability to become a consistent deep threat in the passing game. The receivers were a bit limited, as was the offense as a whole, due to poor offensive line play in 2018. The lack of protection meant that even on short routes, Vol quarterbacks were being hit quickly, leading to more check down throws, screens, and swing passes. Deep routes to attack downfield were at a premium, usually requiring max protection packages to be called, and even then, the passes had to come out so fast the receivers were left to make a great play on a contested ball. Time and again, when they were afforded the opportunity, Tennessee receivers made those plays on the ball. In 2019, the Vols should have a better, if much younger, offensive line. They also have a quarterback with another year of experience and one of the most widely respected offensive coordinators in the country. Jim Chaney returns to Tennessee with his talent for calling plays to get the most out of his receivers. If the offensive line can hold up better with these young players, there should be plenty of opportunities for the wide receiving corps. This talented, deep group means that there likely won’t be many snaps for newcomers, but the group is senior laden. The Vols will need players that can step in and play immediately next season, meaning Tennessee is looking for impact newcomers. Enter former Marietta High School playmaker and four-star wide receiver Ramel Keyton.
Keyton arrives at Tennessee at six foot two and one hundred eighty-five pounds. He will present Tennessee quarterbacks a big target on the outside with a frame that Strength Coach Craig Fitzgerald will try to beef up to ensure that Keyton can take the pounding of SEC play. Still, even at one hundred eighty-five pounds, Keyton shows good strength for his size. He fights through press coverage well and is adept at breaking tackles downfield. He flashes the ability to muscle through defenders and drive his way through to extra yards as well as fighting through contact to go up and get a contested ball. That big frame and willingness to fight for difficult receptions should allow Keyton to fit right into the Tennessee receiver’s room, as it reflects, and will no doubt be encouraged by, Jennings and Callaway. Keyton shares another trait with Tennessee’s pair of star seniors, his ability to go up and get jump balls. At Marietta, Keyton played in a college-style offense with elite players on his team (Tennessee commit Harrison Bailey was his quarterback and Tennessee target Arik Gilbert was his running mate at wide receiver) and elite opposition. He was going up for jump balls against other players with Power Five offers regularly, and the majority of the time he was the one to come down with the ball. Jarret Guarantano has shown an aptitude for a back-shoulder throw as well as a fade route, and these are also staples of Jim Chaney’s playbook. Keyton’s ball skills and his ability to fight through contact to high point the ball will prove advantageous for the Vols.
Where Keyton separates himself from many of his contemporaries is in, well, his ability to separate. Keyton has deceptive speed, especially for his size. He has a long stride and is a very smooth athlete. Even at full bore, Keyton doesn’t appear to be working as hard as he is while he is running. There are few corners that can stay with him step for step, and even double teaming him is no sure way to prevent him from getting open. The belying speed that Keyton displays can cause safeties to react to late to his breaks or to him pressing a gap in coverage. They close to where they think he should be time and again on his tape, only to find him a few steps behind them. Keyton shows very smooth cuts timing the breaks in his routes well. He attacks corners off the line, using his speed to force them to turn their hips and run, committing to covering him on a deep route often before they want to. Keyton waits until he gets the corners to begin to turn to make his breaks, creating space and giving his quarterback space and a clean look at the front of his jersey as a target. Keyton’s speed means that defenders must respect the threat of the deep ball, as trying to play the short throws aggressively leads to a double move and a long score. Keyton’s routes are very good for the high school ranks, but upon his arrival in Knoxville, Wide Receiver’s Coach Tee Martin will push Keyton not only to sharpen his routes, but to grow his route tree. Martin will push Keyton to break off his routes harder, sharper, to create more space in a league where that comes at a premium. Keyton will also be pushed to develop more routes that he can run at a high level, a deep comeback route is something seldom shown on his film, however, with the respect his speed demands and his knack for breaking as a corner turns his hips, it is a route that could prove valuable for the Vols.
As smooth as Keyton is on his routes, he is equally fluid once the ball is in his hands. An on-time delivery to Keyton on something as simple as a seven-yard slant can end up a touchdown thanks to his speed. This is a receiver that defenders must find a way to get on the ground as soon as he catches a ball. If Keyton can make a catch and stay in stride, he is lethal after the catch. Just as his speed often causes safeties to take wrong angles or see him outrun angles on his routes, Keyton can outrun angles of pursuit once he has the ball. His film is full of plays where he simply pulls away from the defenders chasing him or leaves players that should have angled him out of bounds grasping at air. That speed makes Keyton a dangerous target at all levels to a defense, a skill that will make him more valuable to Chaney and the Vols.
The 2019 season will be an interesting one for Keyton. As a dynamic athlete and playmaker throughout his high school career, one would figure that Keyton should see the field early for Tennessee. However, Keyton saw his senior season, one that was off to a record shattering pace, ended due to injury after only six games. Keyton had over 1,200 yards receiving for Marietta as a sophomore and junior, and he was already over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns for the season when he was hurt. The Tennessee staff will have to balance the need for such a dynamic playmaker with ensuring that he is fully recovered, as the numbers bear out what a healthy Keyton can do. That said, with such a top heavy and senior heavy position group, Keyton may be a player that is a candidate for a redshirt. Tennessee would be free to use him in up to four games this season while saving a year of his eligibility for seasons when he will be called on to be one of the top playmakers on the roster. How the staff handles Keyton in 2019 will be intriguing, but however that plays out, the future for the Tennessee offense is going to be closely tied to the success of Ramel Keyton for seasons to come.