RTI is taking a look at some of the biggest storylines for the Vols this spring as Tennessee begins spring practice on March 7.
Storyline: Looking for consistency at wide receiver
Who is gone from the position: Von Pearson (graduation), Johnathon Johnson (graduation), Marquez North (early NFL entry), Pig Howard (dismissed from program last fall), Jason Croom (expected to work at TE)
Who is on campus:
• Josh Malone (31 catches, 405 yards, 2 TDs in 2015)
• Josh Smith (23 catches, 307 cards, 2 TDs)
• Preston Williams (7 catches, 158 yards, 2 TDs)
• Jauan Jennings (14 catches, 149 yards)
• Vincent Perry (medical redshirt in 2015)
• Cody Blanc (appeared in 5 games in 2015)
• Jeff George (early enrollee/JUCO transfer)
Injury concerns: Malone is expected to miss spring practice and Perry may not be 100% after undergoing a knee procedure last August
Help on the way: Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson, Corey Henderson and Latrell Williams will enroll this summer
Why it’s a storyline: Tennessee’s rushing attack was historically potent during the 2015 season. And while the receivers certainly deserve their share of credit for blocking on the perimeter, a school doesn’t call itself Wide Receiver U for its ability to to seal off defensive backs on run plays.
Tennessee fell to ninth in the league in passing yardage in 2015, and three of the top six receivers on the team weren’t even wide receivers (Ethan Wolf, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Hurd). And the most productive wide receiver, Von Pearson, in terms of total catches and yards, won’t be back in 2016. As you can see, there’s plenty of work to do at this spot.
Raw size, athleticism and talent doesn’t seem to be an issue for this group. Loaded up with 4/5-star type of players, many of which look like NFL receivers, this group continues to have big potential if it can find some consistency. But will that lead to production in 2016? That’s the question the Vols will begin to look for an answer to this spring.
The good news for UT is that, with the strength of the rushing game and receiving help, from some talented RBs/TEs, the Vols don’t need massive production from the receivers. An improved, more consistent, passing game, however, will go a long way in getting the Vols to Atlanta in 2016.
Under the microscope: WRs coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni
Azzanni has done a solid job getting talented wide receivers on campus. That’s only half the job, though. And while there have been many factors outside of his control such as injuries, suspensions, departures from the program and some inconsistency from the quarterback position, the reality also remains that this group of receivers has been more about potential than production so far.
Some fans clamored for change at this spot during the 2015 season, but Butch Jones showed faith in Azzanni, giving him another opportunity to help some of these young receivers take the next step.
What to expect this spring: Reps – and a lot of them – for Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings. With Malone out, and a comfort level with Smith due to his level of experience, look for the coaches to really push that sophomore duo to a new level of understanding of the position so they can unlock their playmaking potential.
Jennings is still relatively new to the position after switching from quarterback last summer, while Williams, who was slowed by a hamstring injury last fall, also got a late start to college football after some snags in his eligibility clearance kept him out of fall camp. Both somewhat had to learn on the fly last year.
The competition will certainly heat up this summer when four newcomers arrive, but look for the coaches to really push guys like Jeff George and Vincent Perry (health pending) this spring as well to see if they can be part of the rotation in the fall.