With over 90,000 fans expected to be in attendance, Josh Malone may get his biggest opportunity this far in his young career on Saturday afternoon at Georgia, against a team he heavily considered in the recruiting process before ultimately committing to Tennessee.
But perhaps an equally significant moment for the true freshman came Tuesday afternoon at Haslam Field with maybe a few dozen people total present. Malone was the first receiver out on the field, working alone with a manager on the JUGS machine to improve his hands.
Nobody was cheering. Few even noticed.
Without that improved work ethic, however, the opportunity he has on Saturday might not be there. But with Von Pearson and possibly Josh Smith out against the Bulldogs, Malone’s hard work has put him in position to play a huge role for the Vols as they enter SEC play.
“Practice habits – work capacity,” Butch Jones said of what he’s seen improve from Malone. “The volume of repetitions, mental toughness, all of that. And that’s a byproduct of enrolling early, and that’s attributed to him, but also, it’s (wide receiver coach) Zach Azzanni. I continue to say it, and I mean it, but I’m a receiver coach by nature, and he has a knack for developing receivers, and Josh holds on every word that he says, and he’s working exceptionally hard now, and he’s really worked his practice habits, and you have to be able to take the practice field to the game field, and he’s been able to do that.
“And he’s played consistently, every time he’s gone in there, he’s caught the football, he’s advanced the football, he’s blocked, he’s done everything that we’ve asked of him. He’s been a quiet, consistent performer for us.”
It’s not as if he snuck in completely under the radar, however. A former five-star recruit and one of the most anticipated signees in recent Tennessee football history, expectations for Malone only grew after he had an impressive spring that culminated with a massive six-catch, 181-yard and three-touchdown performance in the Orange and White Game.
That success didn’t completely carry over into fall camp. He often looked like a freshman – running some incorrect routes, dropping passes, going up with one hand when two were needed and drawing the ire of the coaches from time to time. He has just five catches for 63 yards through three games, but he had two nice grabs at No. 4 Oklahoma in UT’s last game, and is gaining more and more confidence as he’s set to play a bigger role against the Bulldogs.
“He struggled a little bit during fall camp, dropped some passes, but he’s started to bring a consistent work ethic and workman-like mentality to practice every day,” said quarterback Justin Worley. “He’s not dropping as many balls and he’s really done a good job getting in the game and making some plays.”
“I just feel like I’ve gotten better with my intensity out there on the field in practice, and just taking advantage of most of my opportunities, and just having more bounce in my step when I’m out there,” Malone added.
And though his future is bright, Saturday will be his first opportunity to truly shoulder much of the receiving load for the Vols. Pearson is out. Smith should be treated as doubtful as of Tuesday evening. Marquez North and Pig Howard will see a ton of work, but with the Vols regularly going three-wide, there’s a good chance Malone will step into a starting role. At the very least, he’ll get more opportunities.
“His role will continue to expand and very rightfully so,” Jones said. “He’s worked exceptionally hard. He’s starting to understand the small details of what it takes to play championship football at the receiver position: the work ethic, the practice habits.”
Small details like being the first out to get extra work in before practice. Details that could add up to a big afternoon in Athens on Saturday.