Who will become Tennessee's primary receivers in passing game?
During spring practice, fans look to see how their favorite team is addressing the holes left from the previous season.
In the case of Tennessee, a team riding a six-game winning streak that returns 17 starters from last year’s blowout bowl victory, it’s more fine tuning than any sort of overhaul.
One of the nits you could pick with the Volunteers, however, is the available targets for rising senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Von Pearson had a team-high 38 catches in 2015, but he’s one of the few starters that will need to be replaced. The next five names on the list of leading receivers all return this season, but none of them kept opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
This season, coach Butch Jones is hoping that a few of the returnees take a step forward and become go-to receivers for Dobbs.
Here’s a look at the most likely candidates:
PRESTON WILLIAMS, WR
Williams, a four-star recruit out of Hampton, Ga., got his feet wet as a true freshman last season, catching seven passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
He’s turning heads this spring, impressing coaches and teammates alike with his work ethic and confidence.
“He’s really mature right now. He’s bringing it every day,” Jones told 247Sports. “He’s competing on a daily basis. He’s had a high level of consistency, which we need from him and we need from that position. And he’s only going to continue to get better, but I’ve been pleased with his spring.”
He has the size (6-foot-4) and athleticism to be a difference maker, and this could be the year he delivers on his potential.
ETHAN WOLF, TE
A reliable tight end is every quarterback’s best friend, offering a big target in the middle of defenses. Wolf, 6-6, 245 pounds, hauled in 23 passes for 301 yards and two scores last season, and he’ll be looking to improve on those numbers in his junior year.
“Your freshman year, you’re just kind of getting your feet in the water,” Wolf told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Saturday. “It’s a new experience, you have to learn. Then sophomore year you’re trying to perfect certain things. Now I just want to become a dominant tight end in both the run and pass game.”
With 46 career receptions, if he can stay healthy (he’s dealing with an injured hip this spring), he’s a good bet to be among the team leaders in catches again.
ALVIN KAMARA, RB
While he’s better known for his running, Kamara was the team’s second-leading receiver last season with 34 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns.
The Norcross, Ga., product won’t supplant Jalen Hurd as the starter at running back, but with his ability to catch the football, it makes sense to find ways to get him on the field more in 2016.
247Sports’ Wes Rucker reported after the Vols’ recent scrimmage that “it’s still fair to suggest that it looks like the Vols are expanding or at least diversifying Kamara’s role in the offense these days. He’s all over the place.”
It’s also worth noting that Kamara spent his spring break working out with Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown, which implies that there are plans to broaden his role in the offense as a receiver.
JOSH MALONE, WR
Malone was third on the team last season with 31 catches while adding 405 yards and two touchdowns, and he figures to start the season as the Volunteers’ primary receiver.
He improved on his freshman totals (23 catches, 231 yards and a score) and, although he’s not taking part in spring practice, he’ll get every chance to take another step forward this fall.
JOSH SMITH, WR
Like Wolf, Smith recorded 23 catches in his sophomore season. And like his teammate, he wants to build on those numbers in 2016.
“We can’t just rely on Jalen (Hurd) and Alvin (Kamara),” Smith told The Tennessean last week. “Our passing game is very important. We’ve got to take the heat off of Jalen and Alvin.”
In Saturday’s scrimmage, Smith seemed to be working toward that goal, drawing praise from Rucker for some of his playmaking skills.
If just two or three of these players can increase their productivity, it will go a long way toward helping Tennessee deliver on the great expectations following it around in advance of the 2016 season.