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One of the positions that Tom Herman and Tim Beck saw a lot of promise in when they first showed up was the wide receiver group. It was a group that returns almost all of its production, with 6 out of 8 of the leading receivers from last season currently in camp.
The role of wide receivers at UT changed quickly when Herman arrived, as the route tree became more complex. Luckily for wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer, he’s got what he thinks is the deepest position. “I think from a pure numbers standpoint, you’d look at it and say yes.”
He has several tall, physical receivers at the boundary position including sophomores Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Offensive coaches have spoken highly of both during preseason camp, but a challenge Mehringer gave to Johnson has seen his play take off.
“The thing that he’s really improved on is, in the spring I told him I didn’t think he had the physical toughness to play this position at an elite level,” Mehringer said. “He’s come out in fall camp, he’s played this game a lot more physical. That’s in the run game, that’s blocking, and that’s in the pass game with balls in the air. He’s done a good job, I think, of developing that side of his game, which I did not think existed in the spring.”
Johnson has taken the X receiver spot and made it his. In this offense, Mehringer thinks the boundary receivers have a chance to take advantage of one-on-one matchups. Last season, receivers like Johnson and Humphrey were forced to primarily utilize their speed for routes in Sterlin Gilbert’s offense. This year, they have a chance to use their bigger frames to make an impact.
“If you’ve got those physical attributes, use them physically,” Mehringer said.
While the pecking order at the boundary wide receiver position is clear, things get a little murkier when you move over to the slot. At this point, there is no clear cut starting guy.
“I don’t know that we have that guy right now,” Mehringer said. “We need some guys to step up and play that position and play it well. It’s important for how our offense operates.”
At slot, several names are competing for playing time including senior Armanti Foreman, sophomore Devin Duvernay, and freshmen Davion Curtis and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps. While these players will receive most snaps at slot, Mehringer mentioned that Humphrey and senior Lorenzo Joe have also seen some time in the middle of the field.
Hemphill-Mapps has surged up the depth chart after a strong showing during the spring. He shows an ability to sit and find holes in coverages, but Mehringer’s been impressed with what he’s done with his 6-foot-1, 185 pound frame.
“I think that he’s growing up from the standpoint that he’s willing to throw his body in there more than he’s been,” Mehringer said. “He’s not avoiding things. He’s a super fluid route runner, he’s got good hands, he loves football. He loves football.”
At field wide receiver, the options are not as certain as on the boundary. Juniors John Burt and Jerrod Heard have seen lots of snaps at that spot this year.
Even though 2016 was not a season to remember for Burt, Mehringer still expects him to compete for the position.
“He’s right in the mix for that,” Mehringer said. “I think we all know he’s had some deep balls. He’s got the chance to go make some plays. He’s got to develop some confidence, which I think is coming.”
Following last season’s results, it’s possible to see why some could call the receiver group a soft position group. For Mehringer, he doesn’t see them as soft, just needing to unleash physicality.
“I don’t think that they played the game as physical as it was necessary to be an elite level football team or an elite level unit,” Mehringer said. “We can’t accept anything less than that. We have some guys that have some bad moments out at practice. I think everyone’s got some of that to an extent. As a consistent portfolio of what you’ve done out there, are we going to play this game physically on the perimeter. We have to.”