Tennessee football position preview: Receivers will face competition from new faces

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The third in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in three months.

Receivers coach Zach Azzanni (right) talks to offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian during practice. (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, TennesseeMarquez North emerged as a big-play threat in his freshman season with the Vols.

In an offense that struggled to throw downfield, he was sometimes the only big-play threat.

The good news is that North was still raw for much of his debut season and he should improve after a year of coaching.

Alton “Pig” Howard should hold down the slot position if he stays focused on off-the-field responsibilities. Coaches thought he turned a corner in maturity in the 2013 season, but they still have some lingering concerns about his ability to lead by example.

Jason Croom and Josh Smith shared the third receiver spot, although Croom began to pull away as the season progressed. I’m told there are no plans to move Croom to tight end, where he had worked some earlier in his career.

Only two players are leaving (see below). Vincent Dallas departed mid-season, while Josh Harris was the most surprisingly of the three players who were given their release earlier this month.

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Dallas had bounced between receiver and defensive back during his career. Harris was only a freshman, but his best chance to make an impact may have already come and gone during 2013.

There are reinforcements coming.

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Coaches expect Josh Malone and Von Pearson to make an instant impact. The duo will have every opportunity to start in 2014. 

The added depth will give the Vols more flexibility in four-receiver sets. The team can also give North a breather so he doesn’t have to play on nearly every snap.

The projections (below) are obviously highly speculative. They involve two significant players who have yet to even arrive on campus.

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Without regard to position, I could see the Vols using at least a seven-man receiver rotation that included Malone, Pearson, North, Howard, Croom, Smith and Johnathon Johnson.

Ryan Jenkins should be interesting to watch. He missed all of 2013 with an injury that some feared could impact his career. But reports now are that he has made significant progress in rehab and could be a factor in the spring.

Vic Wharton and Neiko Creamer are listed as receivers for now. For recruiting purposes, they’re classified as athletes, which means they could end up in one of several positions. Wharton could be a receiver or defensive back. Creamer might be big enough to be a tight end. Non-receiver positions could be the fastest path to early playing time for both freshman. Regardless, expect to see them active on special teams.

A note on this series: As National Signing Day approaches, we’ll review each of Tennessee’s positions with an eye toward spring football in 2014. I’ll update the spreadsheets as players commit, sign, enroll or leave. Click on the links for previews of the offensive line and running backs.

A note on the statistics: The snap count shown in the first graphic includes only offensive snaps. It does not count special teams. The statistics are unofficial and come from our snap-by-snap database. “YPP” is yards per play, or simply the number of yards Tennessee gained while the player was on the field, divided by the player’s total snaps. “Adjusted YPP” adjusts the average for various factors, including game, situation, formation, down, distance and position. “Impact factor” is the degree to which a player’s YPP outperformed the average YPP for a player in a similar situation. A factor of 100 is average; above that is better, lower is worse. You should view Adjusted YPP and Impact Factor as “interesting” stats and not necessarily relevant ones. Someone who plays every snap will, by definition, have an Impact Factor of 100. On the other end, the small sample size of many reserves means just one or two plays can significantly shift their score.