It was the longest pass play of Tennessee's 41-20 defeat of South Carolina this past Saturday night, but the connecting components weren't sure how it happened.
In the final moments of the first quarter and with the Volunteers nearing midfield, quarterback Joe Milton III dropped back and threw deep down the right sideline for receiver Squirrel White. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound sophomore slowed down and reached back for the ball, but when Gamecocks defensive back Nick Emmanwoni turned around, his left arm came in front of White's face.
"I couldn't even see the ball," White said. "It just hit my hands, and I held on to it."
The 50-yard reception caused Neyland Stadium to erupt, with the Gamecocks having taken their one and only lead of the evening moments earlier at 7-3. White's catch at the South Carolina 4-yard line set up Jabari Small's 2-yard touchdown run two plays later that put the Vols ahead to stay.
Both Milton and White surely have seen the replay multiple times by now, but Milton was just as clueless moments after Tennessee improved to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in Southeastern Conference play.
"The only thing I heard was the crowd," Milton said. "That's how I knew he caught it."
The Vols have their lone open date of the season this weekend, which will precede a tricky, three-game gauntlet of hosting Texas A&M, traveling to Alabama and traveling to Kentucky. They were off Monday and will practice Tuesday through Thursday.
White, a former three-star prospect out of Clay-Chalkville High School in Birmingham, was targeted nine times against South Carolina and amassed nine receptions for 104 yards. It was the 17th game of his career and his third 100-yard performance.
"He's a young player, relatively speaking, who just continues to get better," Vols coach Josh Heupel said. "He's extremely confident and comfortable out there. He operates extremely efficiently, and Joe has great confidence in him. He made a big-time competitive play on the deep ball that got us going.
"A lot of his night was one-on-ones, and nine catches on nine targets is a hell of a night for him."
White had 122 receiving yards in last October's 65-24 throttling of UT Martin, but he really turned heads with his nine catches for 108 yards in the 31-14 downing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He finished last season with 30 receptions for 481 yards and two touchdowns, with his 16.0 yards per catch ranking 11th in the league and first among SEC freshmen.
There certainly were times last season when White got lost in the shuffle as Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman and Bru McCoy were excelling, but Hyatt and Tillman are now in the NFL, and McCoy is out for the rest of this year after suffering a fracture and dislocation of his right ankle during Saturday's second quarter. That only enhances Tennessee's need for White to continue to flourish and excel.
"Everything that happens takes time to happen," Milton said. "We didn't connect that much in the first four games, or as much, but at the same time, you've got to keep chipping away and building that trust in practice. You just keep working at it, because when it shows up, it will show up."
When White signed with the Vols, he was touted for his speed after turning in times of 10.68 seconds in the 100-meter dash and 21.58 seconds in the 200 during the AHSAA state championships. The concern was whether his diminutive frame would hold up against the SEC's physical defensive backs.
Precisely 56 catches and 757 yards later, that no longer seems to be a topic of discussion.
"The first day on the practice field, when we were wearing helmets and shoulder pads, there were a lot of physical drills we were doing out on the perimeter," Heupel said. "When he got here on campus, it was all in the fight right from day one. He's tough. He's physical. He's going to stick his nose on people. He's going to play with great fundamentals, and he's been that way from the jump."
Said White as a smiling Milton looked on, "I feel like I've always been a physical guy."
Vols back on CBS
CBS announced Monday afternoon that it will televise Tennessee hosting Texas A&M on Oct. 14, with kickoff set for shortly after 3:30. The network has a noon-3:30 doubleheader next weekend, with Georgia's trip to Vanderbilt being the noon telecast.
The Vols lost 11 consecutive games on CBS during the 2017-21 seasons, including the last 10 by double-digit margins, but they snapped that streak with last year's 38-33 topping of Florida. Tennessee went 3-1 on the network last season, downing the Gators, Alabama and Missouri and losing to Georgia.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].