Tennessee waiting for No. 1 receiver to emerge
Last season represented a major step forward for Tennessee, but there were growing pains, which is expected with a young team. The offense didn’t hit its stride until midway through the season, once Joshua Dobbs was forced into action due to injury and ineffectiveness ahead of him. The offensive line struggled mightily as well as it battled through inexperience.
The wide receiving corps, with plenty of talent, also failed to fully meet expectations. This year, it may be the Volunteers’ most talented position group.
One of the group’s least-heralded players, Pig Howard, ended up leading the team in both catches and receiving yards in 2014. Howard, at 5-foot-8 and playing out of the slot, doesn’t look the part of a No. 1 receiver, but he played it well as the go-to guy for all three of Tennessee’s quarterbacks last fall.
Tennessee’s two most touted weapons both had their ups and downs last fall. Marquez North, a former four-star recruit, was expected to blossom as a sophomore. Instead, he caught just 30 passes for 390 yards, didn’t get in the end zone after Week 6 and missed the final three games of the year with a shoulder injury, which has him limited this spring.
Von Pearson was hyped up as a junior college transfer last year, but a high ankle sprain had him limping around for a good portion of the season, and he missed two games early in the season as a result. After he returned in Week 5, he had just two games in which he went over 50 receiving yards, but one of them was his seven catch, 75-yard performance against Iowa in the bowl game.
On top of North, big receiver Jason Croom is out for the spring as well as he recovers from a late-season injury. He has the talent to be a major player in the red zone, but needs to get healthy first.
Rising sophomore Josh Malone found a role last year as a freshman, in part because Josh Smith missed all but three games with an ankle injury. Both players, along with Pearson and Howard, are a full-go this spring.
With North limited and Croom out, the Vols will look to Pearson to lead the way as their downfield threat. Both Malone and Smith have the potential to be scary threats, with both possessing good size and athleticism. The Volunteers already have the slot sewn up with Howard, but developing at least one consistent vertical threat from the talent on hand would be a boon to the passing game.
In addition to all that, Tennessee welcomes in one of the best wide receivers from the class of 2015 this fall, Preston Williams. The 6-foot-4 burner could be the guy to stretch defenses, but he’ll have to do some catching up to the receivers already on campus.
Tennessee as a team is a year older than last year, when it was one of the youngest in football. The coaching staff and fan base can only hope they’re healthier, too. That applies to the receiving corps specifically, but Tennessee might have to wait until fall to take in the full picture for the group.