The University of Tennessee has long been known as Wide Receiver U. That is a moniker that both the school and the fan base have been extremely proud of for many years now. While the Vols have had some ups and downs over the last few years, the wide receiver position has remained a strength. Last season, as the entire offense struggled, the wide receiver group was hampered by injuries, scheme, three starting quarterbacks, and offensive line play that saw all those quarterbacks pressured regularly. The passing game was one of the worst in the nation in 2017, but those numbers don't show what could be a strength for the Vols this fall.
The primary reason for this evaluation comes in the form of two players, Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings. These two may provide Tennessee with one of the most potent receiving duos in America when they are on the field together. Jennings and Callaway are both dynamic playmakers that bring different skill sets to the table for the Vols. Those skill sets complement each other well, however, giving Tennessee a pair of guys that can do everything well, as well as threatening a defense in any way you could imagine. As good as the individual players are, the different strengths they bring make this combination so potent. Let's begin with a look at the better know of the two commodities.
Jauan Jennings arrived at Tennessee as a four-star quarterback from Murfreesboro, TN. He was a big, strong athlete that was expected to factor in to the quarterback competition. As his first off season progressed, it became evident that the way Jennings would get to the field the fastest was at receiver, where the Vols desperately needed athletes and healthy bodies. As a freshman, Jennings showed flashes of his potential, but also had to battle the growing pains of learning a new position as well as injuries. After a promising start, Jennings began his sophomore campaign behind Preston Williams on the depth chart.
He began there, but he didn't stay there long. Jennings moved ahead of Williams after the Battle at Bristol, ready to make his presence truly felt two weeks later against Florida. Jennings caught the go-ahead touchdown pass from Josh Dobbs after leaving Florida's best corner and biggest mouth, Jalen Tabor, in the dirt on a hitch and go that Tabor bit on hook, line, and sinker. Jennings leapt further into Volunteer legend shortly after, leaping to catch the Dobb Nail Boot in Athens, Georgia, as Tennessee won Between the Hedges in miraculous fashion. Having a pair of catches that will remain in the minds of Vol fans for decades, as well as an overall strong Sophomore campaign as Tennessee's number two receiver behind Josh Malone in 2016, Jennings looked poised to burst onto the national stage in 2017.
Unfortunately, Jennings was injured in the first half of the opening game of the season in 2018, leaving before halftime against Georgia Tech and never returning. The loss of Jennings stung the Vols through the entire season.Â His leadership, experience, and physicality were sorely missed in what was an exceptionally young receiving group. After a tumultuous off season that saw Jennings dismissed from the program and then reinstated, the Vols look to have a large role for the redshirt junior in 2018. A player with proven SEC success, expect Jennings to be a focus of the offense under Tyson Helton this fall. Jennings will likely be listed at the top receiver for Tennessee, but the young man that filled the void left by him in 2017 may have something to say about that.
All seemed lost for Tennessee when Jauan Jennings was injured in last season's opener against Georgia Tech. The Vols had no real proven production outside, and no idea where they would find a spark to replace Jennings. At least, they didn't until Marquez Callaway exploded on the Yellow Jackets. Callaway showed it all that Labor Day night in Atlanta, the speed to turn a seven yard pass into a fifty yard score, the ability to leap for a jump ball and make a sensational catch, and the body control to make a brilliant grab in the end zone while ensuring his feet were in. Callaway's showing caught the attention of everyone watching, showing the nation he could live up to the four-star rating he carried as a senior coming out of Georgia.
The trouble for Callaway as the season went on though, was his struggle to capture that breakout magic again. Despite showing a knack for making incredible catches, Callaway labored to reproduce his initial success. This was no doubt impacted by the aforementioned play of the offensive line and multiple quarterbacks, as well as a high ankle sprain that hampered Callaway through much of the later season. Still, despite some struggles, Callaway proved to be Tennessee's most dangerous offensive weapons outside of John Kelly, and one of the only players opposing defensive coordinators had to game plan around containing. Now healthy, and off a spring game where he made more incredible grabs, Marquez Callaway figures to be a key component for the Vols on offense in Jeremy Pruitt's first season on Rocky Top.
So, what do the Vols have in this pair? Well, for starters, they have a pair of big, strong targets. Jennings stands six foot three and Callaway is six foot two, giving Tennessee quarterbacks a pair of guys that will be bigger than most every corner they face, both able to go up and get jump balls, and two guys that present a wide strike zone for a quarterback to throw into. Both Jennings and Callaway also excel at leaping for a football, each displaying exceptional ball skills when climbing the ladder to make a reception. Both are sound blockers in the running game, and both consistently break tackles once they have the ball in their hands. For all those similarities, however, the differences are what make the pair so dangerous.
Jauan Jennings is an extremely strong receiver. He fights through press coverage, and has shown an ability to go make catches with defenders draped all over him. In the 2016 season, blatant pass interference was often insufficient to prevent number fifteen from coming up with a catch. Beyond the strength of his body, Jennings showed very strong hands, able to wrestle balls away from defenders. It became clear that if Jennings got his hands on a ball, he was coming down with it. From his background as a running quarterback, the physicality with which Jennings plays receiver makes him stand out. He is not the fastest straight line receiver on the roster, but he is one of the most difficult to tackle. Jennings often initiates contact, excited to run through smaller defenders, able to toss them aside or fight for extra yardage. That strength means that it is very difficult for Jennings to be jammed at the line, which, paired with his exceptional route running, means any corner that presses him risks giving up a monster play. Many defenders will struggle to cover Jennings one on one, because letting him get off a jam means a corner is already behind, off footed, working to catch up to one of the better route runners in college football. Jennings unique skill set means that defenses are limited in how they can cover him, something he shares with the man playing opposite him.
Like Jennings, Marquez Callaway is a big receiver, and, like Jennings, Callaway proves difficult for corners to cover one on one. The difference comes in why he is so difficult to stop for a single defender. Where Jennings is defined at receiver by his strength, Callaway is distinguished by his speed. Callaway has speed to burn, and any play in which he gets s step on a corner could turn into a touchdown. For that matter, any time Callaway gets his hands on the ball he is a threat to score. Callaway shows excellent vision as a runner once the ball is in his hands, both at receiver and when he is returning punts. He shows a knack for breaking tackles, though he uses his quickness to off balance and escape defenders where Jennings often runs through them. Callaway may show his greatest strength in the passes he manages to reel in. Regularly, he finds ways to come up with passes he barely has any right to even get to. Coupled with his excellent leaping ability, Volunteer quarterbacks often just need to get the ball near Callaway for him to come up with the ball. While his routes need polish, and he seems a bit raw as a receiver, Callaway more than makes up for his lack of seasoning by making eye popping catches and possessing the blistering speed that defensive coordinators must scheme to respect.
That is where this duo is going to work so well together. They attack defenses and forces coaches to game plan for them in totally different ways. While Callaway struggled against press coverage last season, Jennings excelled at beating it. Where Jennings is fast, but demands a double team because of his strength and routes, Callaway requires a safety over him every play, or else the defense risks giving up a bomb touchdown. These two complement one another well, and if the offensive line can pass protected at a higher level this year, they could be key components in an offense capable of surprising many in the SEC.
So, Vol Nation, who do you and our staff think will have a better year in 2018, Callaway or Jennings? What do you think their impact will look like on the field this fall? Are you excited to see them together, or do you think someone else will make the difference for the Vols this season? Let us know in the comments.