Returning: Marquez North (Soph), Pig Howard (Jr.), Jason Croom (RS Soph.), Josh Smith (Soph.), Johnathon Johnson (Jr.), Cody Blanc (Jr.), Jacob Carter (Sr.), Drae Bowles (Jr.), Ryan Jenkins (RS FR)
Newcomers: Josh Malone (Fr.), Von Pearson (Jr.), Vic Wharton (Fr.), Adrian Gamble (JR)
This unit has the chance to make one of the largest jumps in the nation from 2013 to 2014.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But last year’s group was the least experienced group of receivers in the modern era of UT football. Still, it was a bunch that took great strides from spring of 2013 to the end of the regular season.
That was in large thanks to the development of then-true freshman Marquez North and then-sophomore Pig Howard. North took huge steps after coming out of high school as a much-ballyhooed recruit, but with limited route-running experience. He has the look of a true outside No. 1 receiver who can be a physical mismatch even for some of the most talented SEC cornerbacks.
North, a Preseason Third-Team All-SEC selection, is about as close to a sure bet as the Vols have on the roster going into 2014. Howard is more of an enigma now, however. After leading the team in total receptions last season, he went AWOL in the spring, temporarily leaving the team. He returned for mini-term in May under conditions laid out by the player staff and has stayed on course up to the present. Butch Jones was complimentary of Howard at SEC Media Days, calling him part of the team and praising is improved work ethic.
If he remains completely committed, he gives the Vols experience and depth in the slot. But he’ll also have a battle on his hands with the arrival of JUCO transfer Von Pearson, who had an impressive spring after putting up video-game-like numbers at Feather River (Calif.) Community College. Pearson is raw. There’s no denying that. He’s exceptionally shifty, however, and is developing a better feel for the position under coach Zach Azzanni. Freshman Vic Wharton will also get a chance in the slot.
Flanking North on the opposite wide side will likely be some combination of freshman Josh Malone and redshirt sophomore Jason Croom. Malone took huge steps after enrolling early and had an exceptional effort in the Orange and White Game and could be a future star in the making after earning five-star status as a prospect out of Station Camp, Tenn. Croom, who, somehow, was even bigger this spring after coming in as a jumbo receiver, had a quietly effective spring as well and gives UT a reliable possession receiver who is especially dangerous in the red zone.
Being thrown into the fire early should pay dividends for the likes of Josh Smith, Johnathon Johnson and Cody Blanc. The Vols might not want them to carry a huge load, but it’ll be nice for them to know they have a few experienced options to roll in the game should the need arise. Ryan Jenkins will have to prove he’s healthy before getting any kind of a shot. Veteran Jacob Carter is also there for depth and leadership in this group.
Jones’ comments on Malone after the spring:
“Josh is a competitive young man and very, very talented and you can see he adds a whole other dynamic to our offense. I said it in the offseason, we have to be able to throw a five yard pass and turn it into a twenty yard gain. That was missing from our offense last year and we’ve really helped ourselves in recruiting. Still not there yet but just has been an individual that right from practice one he can be as good as he wants to be.”
By the Numbers
• North: (UT career) 38 catches, 496 yards, TD
• Howard: (UT career) 57 catches, 442 yards, 4 TDs; 137 yards rushing
• Croom: (UT career) 18 catches, 269 yards, 2 TDs
• Smith: (UT career) 12 catches, 182 yards, TD
• Johnson: (UT career) 13 catches, 189 yards
Projected Initial Depth Chart
North is the only one who seemingly has a spot completely locked down. The slot is shaping up to be an interesting position battle. If Howard comes back strong, they’ll have two really good options in he and Pearson. They would find ways to get both on the field often. Malone very well might start on the other side, though Croom will push him and will be a good situational player. Smith and Johnson likely won’t play huge roles, though they will see the field in all likelihood, even if the others stay healthy. Freshman Vic Wharton is a wildcard in the slot. The depth chart is somewhat stacked against him, but Azzanni indicated that he wants him to be on the field early after he signed last February.
Wharton is certainly a possibility here. The Vols could take a year to bulk him up and develop him in the return game and as a slot receiver. Smith, who battled nagging injuries last year, would be eligible for one as well, though if Azzanni wants him in the rotation, that might not be an option on the table. Walk-on transfer Adrian Gamble from Virginia will sit out this season per NCAA rules.