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Young Group of Receivers Taking Steps Forward

Photo Credit: Will Boling/RTI

Few positions on Tennessee’s roster have seen the overhaul that wide receiver has since this time last year.

Go back to spring of 2016 and that position group had a completely different look.

With Zach Azzanni as the position coach, Josh Malone began to emerge as the star of the group, while former five-star receiver Preston Williams looked to be poised for a breakout season. Veteran Josh Smith was a steadying presence on the practice field, while several incoming freshmen such as Tyler Byrd and Marquez Callaway weren’t even on campus at that time. Jauan Jennings was coming off a promising freshman campaign, but was also just a year removed from playing quarterback.

It’s a drastically different scene this spring.

Malone went pro early, Williams transferred to Colorado State, Smith is on the shelf for the spring and a new generation of younger players is trying to get established. Even the coach is different with Zach Azzanni moving on to the Chicago Bears and Kevin Beard coming from Florida International to fill his position. That’s left Jennings, coming off a couple huge plays in 2016, as one of the few known commodities within that group.

“We’ve challenged him from a leadership standpoint as he’s kind of the veteran of the group, but I kind of think it’s kind of everybody evolving in that servant leadership we talked about,” Butch Jones said after practice on Tuesday. “I think it’s work in progress. Jauan had a very good scrimmage (Saturday) and it’s Jauan understanding too that it’s what you do without the ball in your hands is just as important as the ball in your hands. And we all know that Jauan is as competitive as any young man that we’ve ever had, or that I’ve ever coached, and you love that he wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and that’s what you want as a coach, so again it’s all the small details of the entire wide receivers corps.”

Those details are the focus for several of the younger players at the position this spring.

Byrd, Williams and Callaway are all going through their first spring in Knoxville, and only Byrd, who caught 15 passes for 209 yards in 2016, saw significant action last season.

With a new coach, new quarterbacks and a new offensive coordinator, they’re all getting plenty of opportunities this spring to carve a bigger spot in the rotation in 2017 and beyond. Several of them took a big step forward in that area during the situational scrimmage held in Neyland Stadium last Saturday, according to Jones.

“It’s a young group,” he said. “A group that’s work in progress. I thought in the scrimmage we took a big step in moving forward. Just continuing teaching the fundamentals of playing winning football at that position – releases, second-level releases, breaking points, blocking, route-running, catching the football, all the little details. I enjoy working with that group. It’s a young group and they’re very eager.”

“I think every receiver with a new coach, everyone is trying to push each other to be better,” added Byrd. “And [Beard] is pushing us to be better, and we’re pushing him to better as a coach and everyone’s giving their all right now.”

And with 59 catches and over 1,000 total yards of receiving needing to be replaced in 2017, there should be plenty of opportunities this fall for them to step up.

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