Why Josh Palmer, Daniel Bituli are Tennessee football's most improved players
Tennessee needs wide receiver Josh Palmer to become more than just a downfield threat. The Vols need Daniel Bituli to be the rock of the defense.
Each player took a positive step throughout the spring.
Palmer received the Harvey Robinson Award after Tennessee’s spring game Saturday night for being the most improved offensive player of the spring. Bituli earned the Andy Spiva Award, given to the most improved defensive player.
Palmer capped the spring with three catches for 25 yards on Saturday, including a touchdown. Bituli had three tackles in the game.
What Jeremy Pruitt thinks of Josh Palmer’s improvement
Palmer, a junior, struggled with drops earlier in his career, but he began to iron that out last season and became a top deep target. He caught 23 passes for 484 yards with two touchdowns in 2018.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt sees a more physical receiver this season. That’s been an area of focus for wide receivers coach Tee Martin.
“Tee has done a really good job of kind of challenging him every day to be more physical, to learn more than one position, to be stronger with releases, to have strong hands and make more contested catches,” Pruitt said. “In this league, nearly every ball is contested, so you’ve got to have strong hands.”
Palmer is part of a veteran receiving corps that includes seniors Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings alongside him in the top tier. That trio combined to catch 10 passes from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano on Saturday.
“He’s learned himself, period. He’s just learned himself,” safety Nigel Warrior said of Palmer's improvement. “He learned that he’s a go-getter.”
Why Daniel Bituli is as important as ever
Bituli, a senior, is preparing for a third season as a starter, and he’ll be as vital as ever given that Darrin Kirkland Jr., the team’s other returning starter at inside linebacker, might not play again for Tennessee due to lingering knee issues. Kirkland did not practice this spring.
Bituli led the team with 79 tackles last season. He graded as the team’s sixth-best defensive performer by Pro Football Focus.
Pruitt has seen Bituli improve his pass defense.
“He has really made strides,” Pruitt said. “He’s always been a tough guy and played with good physicalness, but he’s worked on his pass rushing. He’s worked on covering guys. I think he showed a lot more instincts. He’s tried to quarterback the defense this spring. He’s played really hard all spring, and it shows.”
WHAT WE LEARNED:5 observations from Tennessee's spring game
ATTENDANCE:Jeremy Pruitt pleased with spring game crowd
OFFSEASON BOUND:How Jarrett Guarantano clicked during the spring
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.