A 1,000-yard season for Tennessee's Tillman no joke after all

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  • Kodi Burns
    American football coach
  • Josh Heupel
    Josh Heupel
    American football coach

Dec. 7—A summer discussion between Tennessee redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman and position coach Kodi Burns might have seemed more ludicrous than legitimate at the time.

"He called me up into his office," Tillman said, "and he said there is no reason why I shouldn't have a 1,000-yard season. It definitely became a goal of mine, and I'm definitely going to try and get it."

To love Josh Heupel's up-tempo offensive attack is one thing, but Tillman has loved it and truly lived it. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder out of Bishop Gorman High in Last Vegas signed with the Volunteers in 2018 and spent his first three years in Knoxville amassing just eight catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

This season, Tillman has erupted, racking up 57 receptions for 931 yards and nine touchdowns, which has him just 69 yards away from the 1,000-yard milestone as the Vols (7-5) set their sights on a Dec. 30 date with Purdue (8-4) in the Music City Bowl.

"I believe his best football is still ahead of him," Heupel said. "He's a guy who, from the moment we got here, has been super consistent in who he is, how he approaches the day and how he works in the weight room. He's a guy who spends as much time as anybody watching extra film on what we've done offensively and what he's going to have to do, and because of his work habits, he just constantly gets better.

"From the first five days of spring ball to the second five days, you could see him get better and see his confidence grow, and you could see the same thing from the second five days to the third five days. He took another huge jump in the summer in how he prepared."

Tillman's growth continued during preseason camp and has been reflected by his numbers since the season kicked off. Through Tennessee's first four games, he had six catches for 78 yards and a touchdown — a pace more likely for a 250-yard season than a 1,000-yard year.

In the past eight contests, however, Tillman has produced a six-game touchdown streak and three straight 100-yard games, with each of those carrying over to Nashville. He is the first Tennessee receiver since Joey Kent in 1995 with a six-game touchdown streak, and he is the first since Da'Rick Rogers in 2011 with three consecutive 100-yard performances.

"The biggest thing is that Coach Heup really trusts in all his players and he believes in all his players," Tillman said. "When you give a guy like me, who hasn't necessarily done a lot of things in our program, some trust and you put me in a position to make some plays — it's very important, especially to a player like me.

"I don't want to let anybody down. I just want to be a playmaker for this team."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect to Tillman's season is that he's been the best against the best. In the five games the Vols played against teams that are currently ranked, he averaged 107.0 yards, and he had 10 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown in the 41-17 loss to Georgia on Nov. 13.

In the 52-24 loss at Alabama on Oct. 23, he collected seven catches for 152 yards and a score.

"He's super confident and super talented," graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker said. "One time I was throwing the ball away (against Vanderbilt), and he jumped up and caught it. He's put in a tremendous amount of work, and he's earned it. When his number has been called, he's delivered.

"I love competing with the guy and with all the receivers."

Tennessee's veteran players insist Tillman has been good from the start — "From the first day he got here, we got dunked on every day in practice," fifth-year senior safety Theo Jackson said — but now the question is whether he got too good, too quickly.

Tillman said after the 45-21 thumping of Vanderbilt that a decision will be made later regarding his 2022 status, though he admitted he still has a lot to learn. Heupel obviously hopes that learning will continue in Knoxville.

"He's got a chance to be an extremely dominant football player next year," Heupel said. "He's got a chance to do some really special things to help this program win."

Recruiting update

Tennessee has moved up to 21st in the 247Sports.com team rankings for the 2022 recruiting cycle following a weekend commitment from Jourdan Davis, a 6-2, 190-pound safety from Montgomery Catholic Prep in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis is a three-star prospect, with 247Sports pegging him as the nation's No. 61 safety and No. 786 prospect overall. The Vols also got a commitment Monday night from Desmond Williams, a 5-11, 190-pound cornerback from East Central (Mississippi) Community College.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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