There were a couple of position groups that could have been named here. The secondary looks to be much improved thanks to the addition of some talented players at safety and corner, and the tight end spot looks to be a strength of this team thanks to the efforts of freshmen Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm along with Alex Ellis, Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel. But when looking across the board at which position group will have the biggest impact this year thanks to skill, experience and depth there really is only one choice.
Wide Receiver: The receiving corps is a completely transformed unit from what we saw at the end of last season. Marquez North has had very strong summer and looks like he is ready to be the leader of this group in 2014. North looks confident and comfortable in this offense and is playing much faster than he did at any point last season. Josh Smith was banged up for much of 2013 but is playing healthy now and has been making a lot of plays that he simply couldn’t make last year due to injury. With all of the focus on the newcomers coming out of spring practice, Josh Smith has been a very pleasant surprise this summer and looks likely to start.
The addition of Von Pearson and Josh Malone has given this unit some serious playmaking potential and much needed depth, but it may take a game or two for them to adjust to performing at this level. Coach Azzanni has had Pearson working to learn all of the receiver positions during camp, however, so expect to see him used in a variety of ways. Pearson was penciled in as a starter by many in the slot, but the resurgence of Pig Howard over the summer – who has had a great training camp – may have moved him ahead of Von to start the season in the slot. Malone had a slow start to the summer but really began to pick things up over the last week or so and certainly has a bright future ahead of him.
Jason Croom and Johnathon Johnson each had strong performances throughout camp as well and will each play important roles on this team. Johnson is a meticulous route runner who “does everything right” according to Azzanni and Croom’s physical play will make him a nightmare in the red zone for smaller defensive backs. Vic Wharton was slowed by an injury during the middle portion of camp, but he also looks like a player who will make an impact this season. He was already seeing reps with the second team punt return unit and the coaches were very pleased with how quickly he was picking things up at receiver.