Tennessee head man Butch Jones earlier this year called Zach Azzanni “the best receivers coach in the country.” He’d better be because he inherited a cast of wideouts that need an awful lot of fine-tuning.
The “bell cow” of the receiver corps is actually a pig. That would be Alton “Pig” Howard, a 5-foot-8, 185-pounder who averaged just 4.2 yards per catch on 13 receptions last fall. The second-most productive returning wideout from 2012 is junior Vincent Dallas, who caught nine passes.
Third is Jacob Carter, a junior walk-on who reeled in eight balls last fall. Next is Devrin Young, who caught five passes for nine yards (1.8 per catch) as a running back last season and is making the transition to slot receiver this fall. Freshman Cody Blanc played in 2012 but did not catch a pass. Nor did fellow freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom, both of whom redshirted.
Are you underwhelmed yet?
Three-star signee Paul Harris (Accokeek, Md.) enrolled at mid-term with a chance to win a job, then spent most of spring practice injured. Four more wideout signees will join the competition in August – four-star Marquez North (Charlotte, N.C.), three-star Ryan Jenkins (Marietta, Ga.) two-star Josh Smith (Knoxville) and junior college transfer Johnathon Johnson (Blinn, Texas).
Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 179-pounder who signed in April, caught five passes for 69 yards last fall and may help more as a return specialist than a wideout. He ran back four punts for 67 yards and one kickoff for 60 yards at Blinn last fall.
To recap: Tennessee’s receiver corps consists of 12 guys who combined to catch 35 Vol passes in 2012. With no proven players in the mix, it’s entirely possible that a true freshman or two could be starting Game 1 against Austin Peay.
Certainly, Jones has no reservations about starting a freshman wideout. He started one named Antonio Brown at Central Michigan in 2007, and Brown promptly caught 102 passes – second-most by a freshman in BCS history – for 1,003 yards that fall. Brown followed up by catching 93 passes as a sophomore and 110 as a junior before bypassing his senior year to declare for the NFL Draft.
Brown played slot receiver, which appears to be the focal point of a typical Butch Jones passing attack.
“We have to have the ability to spit a five-yard throw out and turn it into a 25-yard gain,” the Vol coach said earlier this year. “The only way you do it is with our slot receivers. Every time we have had success in our offense, our slot receivers have been dominant. You look at Antonio Brown, three years at Central Michigan and is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had 100-plus receptions each year.”
|Devrin Young's move to slot receiver from running back should create mismatches and get him the ball in open space more often.|
Jones also enjoyed success with Anthony McClung as a slot receiver at Cincinnati. McClung caught just 22 passes in 2010 for a Bearcat team that went 4-8. He blossomed in 2011, however, catching 49 passes for 683 yards and six TDs in helping Cincinnati go 10-3. He followed up in 2012 with 34 receptions for 539 yards in helping the Bearcats go 9-3. McClung wasn’t as dynamic as Brown had been at Central Michigan but his stamina and toughness made him a great fit for Jones’ fast-paced attack.
“That’s what we need from Devrin and that’s what we need from Alton,” Tennessee’s head coach said. “They have to play themselves into a great physical shape. You do that by really demanding of yourself, each and every day.”
Given the hectic pace the Vols plan to play, the competition for Tennessee’s receiver spots just might be less about the cream rising to the top and more about survival of the fittest.
See what Azzanni said following the last practice of the spring leading up to the Orange & White game in the IT video below: