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VOL. 7 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 16, 2014

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Dave Link

Vols Resurrect Fond Memories of ‘Wide Receiver U’

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None of the receivers on the University of Tennessee football team were born when the program was dubbed “Wide Receiver U” in the 1980s.

University of Tennessee sophomore Marquez North is one of many young-but-talented wide receivers on this year’s roster. He and fellow sophomore Josh Smith got extensive playing time as freshmen, and will be battling a talented freshman class this year for snaps.

(AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Guys like Tim McGee, Anthony Miller, Alvin Harper and Carl Pickens paved the way for UT to become the premier destination for wide receivers seeking stardom into the 1990s.

Before we get carried away, UT’s current receiving corps is a long way from “Wide Receiver U” status, but it does look to be the strongest unit on the team, offense or defense.

The receivers are one reason – along with running backs and linebackers – for UT’s optimism heading into the Aug. 31 season opener against Utah State.

So what if UT coach Butch Jones has bemoaned the play of quarterbacks Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, and Nathan Peterman during training camp, then praised Worley and Peterman after the team’s first scrimmage?

No matter which QB plays, he will have plenty of receivers to throw at.

“I think it’s going to help our quarterback play tremendously,” Jones says of the receivers. “We talked about it this past year, and I think we forced our quarterbacks to have to play perfectly at times.”

Meet the receiving corps

It’s a young-but-talented group.

Sophomores Marquez North and Josh Smith played extensively as true freshmen and were slotted as starters early in camp, along with juco transfer Von Pearson.

North, a consensus four-star recruit out of Charlotte, N.C., had 38 catches last year – the second-most for a freshman in UT history behind Kelley Washington’s 64 in 2001 – for a team-high 496 yards and one touchdown.

Smith, who helped Christian Academy of Knoxville win consecutive state titles, started four games and made 12 catches for 182 yards last year, but his rookie season was marred by crucial drops.

That has only motivated Smith, who played most of the season with a nagging knee injury (a meniscus tear that required offseason surgery).

UT’s players recognized Smith’s work ethic by voting him one of the team’s 12 leadership players before fall camp, and the coaches praised him for work and leadership in summer and early preseason.

Smith certainly appreciates the support.

“I made so many mistakes in the season, but that shows my teammates still believed in me,” Smith says. “That’s the main thing to me.”

Pearson, a native of Newport News, Va., and four-star recruit out of Feather River (Calif.) College, was a January enrollee at UT and impressive enough to get starting snaps in spring practice.

His 2013 stats in junior college were staggering. Listed at 6-foot-3, 181 pounds, Pearson led all junior college players with 93 catches for 1,601 yards, and had 12 TD catches. He had five 200-yard receiving games, and one game with 311 yards.

Competition from within

Those three starters have plenty of competition from freshman Josh Malone, third-year sophomore Jason Croom, junior Alton “Pig” Howard and junior Johnathon Johnson.

Malone, of Gallatin’s Station Camp High School, has a huge upside. He’s 6-foot-3 and a chiseled 202 pounds, and drew a five-star rating as a high school senior by Rivals, which rated him the No. 2 prospect in the state.

Also a January enrollee, Malone wasted no time impressing the coaches. In his debut at Neyland Stadium, Malone had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the spring Orange & White Game.

Howard is somewhat of a wild card in fall camp after missing spring workouts for undisclosed personal reasons. He started in 2013 and led the team in catches (44) and was second in receiving yards (388).

Jones took Howard’s spring absence seriously – only allowing him back on the team if voted back by a committee of players, which it did. Howard was back on the team for summer workouts and the start of fall camp, but slotted a co-third with Johnson on the early depth chart.

“We want to be exceptional at wide receiver,” Jones says. “We want to be the best in the country.

“We still need to recruit, and we still need to develop. But they have taken tremendous strides, and I do think the quarterback position will be elevated this year because of the supporting cast around them.”

About the running backs

UT doesn’t have the depth at running back it has at receiver, but the three backs offer varying styles and plenty of talent, and position coach Robert Gillespie makes it clear he wants to spread the carries around. That’s the formula for successful run teams in the SEC.

Senior Marlin Lane (5-11, 210) will be the probable starter based on experience, but true freshman Jalen Hurd (6-3, 227) is a close second (if not a starter), ahead of senior Devrin Young (5-8, 178).

Lane moved into a starting job as a sophomore for the last six games of 2012 and finished with 679 yards for the season. He was second on the team in rushing last year with 534 yards behind starter Rajion Neal (1,124 yards).

Hurd missed most of his senior season at Hendersonville Beech High School, but as a junior rushed for a state record 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns – averaging 240 yards per game and 10.6 yards per carry.

Beech went 15-0 that year and won the Class 5A state title. Hurd rushed for title-game records of 394 yards and seven TDs in a 56-35 victory over Columbia Central.

Jones was impressed with UT’s running backs – in particular Hurd – during the Vols’ first scrimmage. It was closed to media, and no statistics were provided.

However, Jones noted afterwards that there were some big plays by the offense, including some by Hurd, a bruising runner due to his size.

“I think Jalen Hurd continues to get better and better and better,” Jones says. “We did some good things (in the scrimmage).”

Young, who played for Knoxville Bearden, gives the Vols another dimension: a quick, elusive runner with pass-catching skills.

Young was a running back in high school and as a UT freshman, when he was used primarily as a kickoff and punt returner. He stayed at tailback/returner in 2012 before moving to wide receiver last year, when he missed five games with a broken hand.

UT will groom two freshmen, Derrell Scott (5-10, 188), and Treyvon Paulk (5-8, 201), for more carries – if attrition hits the top three runners.

Linebackers are key

Defensively, UT’s linebackers will need to lead the way.

Even with the departure of 12-game

starter Dontavis Sapp, a senior in 2013, the linebackers are a team strength – primarily due to the return of senior A.J. Johnson (6-2, 242).

Simply, Johnson has been a constant since arriving at UT as a freshman from Gainesville, Georgia. He started 10 games as a true freshman in 2011 and was a consensus a Freshman All-American.

In 2012, Johnson started all 12 games and earned All-SEC second-team honors, and last year earned several All-SEC first-team and All-America honors.

Junior Curt Maggitt, a starting linebacker in 2011 and ’12, missed last season due to injuries and has moved to one of the starting defensive end positions.

His move opened the way for sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who played in 11 games last season mostly on special teams last season.

Reeves-Maybin, former Clarksville Northeast High School player, moved from safety to linebacker in 2013, and was impressive at the new position in the spring.

Dave Link is a freelance writer living in Knoxville.

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