It's time to scale back Tennessee's expectations a bit at WR
Without question, the talent’s there.
But have we put too much stock into Tennessee’s group of inexperienced and oft-injured wide receivers?
Most assume it’s a position of strength heading into the 2015 season as an Eastern Division contender, but Vols coach Butch Jones called his pass-catchers ‘a work in progress’ throughout spring and seems cautiously optimistic he’ll have a group of five or six ready to go when Tennessee opens with Bowling Green on Sept. 5.
“We’re explosive, but limited in numbers,” Jones told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “We want to get to the point where we play 10, 12, 13 wide receivers (in a game), with the tempo we want to play at. That’s a big point of emphasis in this recruiting class.”
Tennessee’s counting on junior Marquez North, a former four-star signee out of Charlotte, N.C., to step up as this season’s go-to threat before he likely departs after three seasons for the NFL. Blessed with great size and strength at 6-foot-4, nearly 230 pounds, North was, by most accounts, a disappointment last fall after producing an All-American freshman season — 38 catches, 496 yards — by several publications in 2013.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen this season, but he’s one of several wideouts including Jason Croom (21 catches, 305 yards, 4 TD last fall) who was sidelined during the spring in a non-contact jersey recovering from injury.
Von Pearson, a senior and former JUCO transfer who tallied a team-best five touchdown receptions last fall, was recently suspended indefinitely for his role in a sexual assault investigation. Pearson’s exit leaves the Vols without a dependable playmaker on the outside if he doesn’t return this fall.
That leaves senior Pig Howard and promising sophomore Josh Malone as potential primary targets in Tennessee’s passing game. Howard’s been the model for consistency each of his past two seasons, but at 5-foot-8, is limited in what he can do down the field. His strength’s in the slot where he averaged a career-best 11.4 yards per catch last season.
Malone’s a field-stretcher whose total number of targets increased during the second half of his freshman campaign, but he was inconsistent throughout spring ball and struggled with drops.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni says Malone is capable of performing at a high level.
“He’s working on his daily habits, just coming out there with a mindset every day to get better,” Azzanni said after an April practice according to AllForTennessee.com. “And I think he’s done that for the most part. He’s been up and down a little bit, but I see flashes of good things that I didn’t see at the end of last year because of injuries.
“He wants to get better. He’s taking a ton of special teams reps right now just to learn the game a little bit better.”
Then there’s sought-after five-star freshman Preston Williams who is expected to arrive in Knoxville later this month. Since January, he too has been focused on rehabbing a surgically-repaired knee.
Williams recently told 247Sports that he expects to be at full strength “in a couple more months” and hopes to compete for early playing time.
All-SEC quarterback hopeful Joshua Dobbs is only going to be as good as his offensive weapons and Tennessee’s questions at wideout are plentiful heading into the season.