Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni envisioned his unit lining up to make plays throughout the course of the season. He didn’t know many of them would be lining up for the team doctors instead.
After confirming that receiver Jason Croom will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa on Jan. 2 with a patella injury, Azzanni said the 6-5, 245-pound redshirt sophomore will be the fourth receiver in his group to have his season ended prematurely, joining Josh Smith (ankle), Cody Blanc (Achilles) and Marquez North (shoulder).
The Vols will be without some key playmakers and certainly void of the depth that they once enjoyed as they take on the Hawkeyes. But Azzanni said pushing forward is the only option they have.
“We can wallow in our misery having four season-ending injuries or we can be next man up, coach them really hard and this is a good opportunity for some other guys to step up,” Azzanni said. “That’s how we’ve got to look at it.”
The good news for Tennessee is, unlike a year ago, this group has the depth to somewhat withstand even this unusual onslaught of injuries. Three players who have started multiple games – Pig Howard, Von Pearson and Josh Malone – remain healthy and available for the Vols. That’s 105 catches, 1,134 yards and five touchdowns worth of production from just those three.
But in an offense that likes to rotate in as many as 8-10 receivers in a given game, options will be limited behind those guys. The remaining scholarship receivers – Jacob Carter, Ryan Jenkins, Vic Wharton, Johnathon Johnson and Drae Bowles have a combined total of 14 catches on the season for 144 yards.
There have been flashes from some of the lesser-used reserves. Despite not making a catch, Vic Wharton got the start at Vanderbilt and saw extended reps and several targets against the Commodores. Ryan Jenkins is the healthiest he’s been since he arrived in Knoxville, got his first career catch against Missouri and almost had a touchdown at South Carolina. Johnathon Johnson, despite practicing with a cast on his hand right now, has two touchdowns and a 27-yard reception this year.
They’ve been effective in spots, but the Vols will need more from them with so many players down for the bowl game. They’ve shown it in practice and now will need to translate that to the field in front of a national audience.
“Those guys have worked, just the way we practice and the way we play, they are gaining valuable reps in practice over the course of the season,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. “Guys like Vic Wharton, Ryan Jenkins, who has really come along in the course of the season, those guys are getting great opportunity to demonstrate in a game what they have been able to do over the course of the season in practice. The games are always a little bit faster, a little bit more intense. To have the opportunity to have those guys step in and play, as they did against Vanderbilt, and as they will continue to do in this game, it is great for their overall development.”
After all, the Hawkeyes won’t feel sorry for the Vols because the likes of North, Smith and Croom aren’t on the field.
“We’re never going to have any excuses in our room,” Azzanni said. “It’s reality what happened, but nobody cares, Iowa doesn’t care, fans don’t care, we know what the deal is, we know what the problems are. We’re just going to have to find some solutions and, like I said, next guy up … We’re definitely thinner now, there’s no question about that. But we have enough good players to go play this game.
“It’s a day-by-day process. The good thing about bowl practices is we can scheme up certain things to get guys where we want them. We have a little bit more time than we would on a regular game week. They’re getting better at the right times so it’s ok. It’s going to be ok.”