Gone: Von Pearson (graduation), Marquez North (NFL), Johnathon Johnson (graduation), Cody Blanc (opted not to play final year after graduating), Vincent Perry (academically ineligible this season)
Returning: Josh Smith (RS Jr.), Josh Malone (Jr.), Preston Williams (Soph.), Jauan Jennings (Soph.)
Newcomers: Jeff George (RS Jr.), freshmen Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams, Brandon Johnson
If you showed up to a Tennessee practice knowing little about the team and found yourself watching the receivers, you’d be impressed on many levels. They’re big, athletic, quick and many of them pass the “eye test.” You can see why many came to UT highly regarded in recruiting
But football isn’t played by star rankings and one-on-one matchups aren’t won based on appearance. This group of receivers needs to step up in 2016. They need to move from potential to production.
No returning receiver caught more than 31 passes last year. There are a variety of factors that led to low numbers for this group, but the bottom line is that the Vols need the likes of Josh Malone, Josh Smith, Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings to get off the line, get separation and make more plays down the field to take some pressure off the run game.
They’ll need some help from the newcomers as well. Tyler Byrd, who many projected to play defensive back, came in as a receiver and is having a strong camp. Junior college transfer Jeff George, Latrell Williams, Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson all bring upside as well. If the Vols can get better production from the returning four and have two or three newcomers step up, this could be an improved unit.
By the numbers:
- Malone (2015): 31 catches, 405 yards, 2 TDs
- Smith (2015): 23 catches, 307 yards, 2 TDs
- Jennings (2015): 14 catches, 149 yards
- Williams (2015): 7 catches, 158 yards, 2 TDs
- The returning receivers accounted for 42.9% of UT’s receiving yards last season
Projected initial depth chart:
If the season started today, Smith, Williams and Malone most likely would be the first three on the field with Jennings certainly in the conversation. The newcomers are battling for positioning behind them, with Byrd looking like the player, at least early in camp, most ready to make a big contribution.
Barring major injury, there’s a good chance every scholarship receiver will play this year.
Tight end overview: It’s a bit simpler at tight end, where Ethan Wolf is the clear starter and former receiver Jason Croom takes over for graduated senior Alex Ellis as the backup. Wolf has been consistent with exactly 23 catches in both of his first two years, though many would like to see him more involved in the offense. He has All-SEC type potential if his role grows in the coming years. Croom is a wild card who certainly brings big-play potential to the position, but doesn’t have much experience as an in-line blocker.
Freshmen Devante Brooks, who brings a little more size and physicality, and Austin Pope, who is more of the pass catcher of the two newcomers, give the Vols quality depth and upside for the future. Position journeyman Jakob Johnson and Wolf’s younger brother, Eli, are also hoping to see the field in 2016.