ATLANTA — Hendon Hooker felt a connection with Cedric Tillman almost instantly.
As two self-described quiet and reserved individuals, Hooker and Tillman formed a friendship early on Hooker’s tenure at Tennessee after transferring from Virginia Tech at the end of the 2020 season.
That friendship was evident on the field, too when Hooker participated in his first spring camp with the Vols, but it was a game at Missouri on Oct. 2, 2021 where the trust went to a whole other level.
That day, Tennessee put first-year head coach Josh Heupel’s renowned, high-flying offense on fully display, routing the Tigers, 62-24, for its first SEC win of the season.
Tillman caught four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown as the Vols posted nearly 500 yards through the air. It was a sign of things to come for Tillman, who solidified himself as one of the league’s elite receivers.
“Me and (Tillman) kind of clicked from the jump,” Hooker said. “I remember the spring game we connected like four plays in a row and he went over the top for a touchdown. From then, on we really just started to click and hang out a little bit more... I’d probably say the Missouri game was when we started to really click (in season). I got him in the end zone and that’s what’s important. I love to feed him. I love to feed all my guys. Spread the love.”
Tillman entered the season as a virtual unknown in the Tennessee offense. He had been in the program since former head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first season in 2018 but only had eight total receptions and two touchdowns going into his junior campaign in 2021. He finished that season with 64 catches for 1,081 yards and 12 scores, solidifying himself as one of Hooker’s top targets in a talented receiving room that also included Velus Jones Jr., JaVonta Payton and Jadin Hyatt.
After spurning the NFL Draft to return for his senior season in Knoxville, Tillman won’t have the element of surprise this time. Defensive secondaries all over Tennessee’s schedule will seek him out and if they don’t, he’ll make them pay for it.
“(I’ve worked on) becoming a complete overall receiver,” Tillman said. “Working on the little things that people may not notice from watching on TV. For the other receivers on the team, they are taking the same approach and working on their hands and their running. I want to see the receivers working hard and representing the team well this year.”
“A year ago who thought (Tillman) was going to have the year he had,” Heupel added. “... Certainly Cedric is going to get a ton of attention. It’s our role as an offensive staff to put him in position to create isolations, one on one, find a way to get him the football.”Last season wasn’t the first time Tillman has had to surprise people, either. He turned in a stellar senior season at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas in 2017, but had to consider walking on to a team because of a lack of offers.
Tennessee approached him late in the process and he accepted, but after a lack of playing time in his first three seasons and having the staff that recruited him completely overhauled after Pruitt’s firing in 2020, he again had to weigh his offers before deciding to finish out his career with the Vols.
Instead of using that under appreciation as a chip on his shoulder, Tillman uses it as inspiration for others.
“It was a couple of days before signing day (that Tennessee offered). I really didn’t know where I was going to go,” Tillman said. “... I guess I was meant to wear the Orange and White. ... I play my game, I let it speak for itself. I feel like it’s more of an inspiration thing for those high school kids, all you need is a team to take a chance.”