NASHVILLE — When Josh Heupel and his staff were hired to coach the Tennessee Vols, certain expectations came with them. Offensive player personnel stood to benefit most, but it was unclear whose NFL Draft stock would receiver the biggest boost.

If you had receiver Cedric Tillman’s breakout season pegged, you have greater foresight than most.

The Vols staff came into the 2021 season expressing optimism about Tillman despite the lack of evidence to support a breakout. Tillman came to Tennessee as a true freshman in 2018 under then-coach Jeremy Pruitt. He appeared in four games that year before redshirting, but accumulated only eight catches for 124 yards in his first three seasons on campus.

Now, Tillman is being discussed as potentially one of the top wide receivers for the 2023 draft.

Tillman has Top 40 potential

Even the most adept of draft prognosticators could not have predicted what Tillman gave the Vols in 2021.

As a redshirt junior, Tillman helped take Tennessee’s offense to another level. The Vols had not had a 1,000-yard receiver since Justin Hunter in 2012. Tillman came up just two yards short of matching Hunter’s single-season production, but finished the year with 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. While Heupel put together the seventh best scoring offense in college football (39.3 ppg), Tillman became a weekly factor.

The receiver ranked ninth in the SEC in catches, fifth in receiving yards, third in touchdowns and third in average yards per catch (16.9).

“There’s a lot to like about (Tillman),” said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell on our 104.5 The Zone Podcast The Install“He showed excellent off-the-snap quickness for a big man. He could defeat press coverage without any route disruption. He also showed physicality in defeating press coverage. He played big. He played powerfully. He’s a physical kid. When he had free access off the ball, I thought he was pretty explosive getting into his route stem, breaking down the cushion of corners with speed and stride length.”

Tillman is listed in Tennessee’s media guide as 6’3, 215 lbs.

Vols NFL Draft
Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) and Tennessee defensive back Romello Edwards (7) celebrate a touchdown by Tillman during the 2021 TransPerfect Music City Bowl between Tennessee and Purdue at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

NFL Draft scouts are watching the Vols closely

When I talked to NFL scouts during this last pre-draft process, the Vols offense was consistently mentioned as a favorite unit in college football to watch.

Heupel more than delivered on what was forecast in Year 1 for Tennessee fans. Tillman performed spectacularly under the new regime and is poised to improve his stock even further in 2022. Notching five 100-yard receiving yards (sixth in UT single-season history), including four straight to end the year is no small feat. Doing it again against SEC competition like Alabama and Georgia is what will vault Tillman into a higher-level conversation.

Legitimate expectations for both the Tennessee program and its players is something Vols fans certainly will not take for granted.

Featured Image: USA TODAY Sports.