Naturally, this made landing some quality pass catchers a major priority on the Vols' recruiting list.
"It was very important," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian conceded. "Obviously, a lot of production was lost to the NFL."
Thanks to four quality additions in the 2013 signing class, however, the outlook may not be as dire as it once appeared.
Harris is a 6-foot-4, 195-pounder who averaged 22.9 yards per catch (32 receptions, 735 yards) as a high school senior. He already is enrolled at Tennessee and will participate in spring practice. Vol receivers coach Zach Azzanni describes him as having "all the physical tools to be a great wide receiver in the SEC."
Jenkins is a 5-foot-11, 180-pounder who caught 24 balls for 415 yards as a senior. He is the son of former Vol defensive back Lee Jenkins. Azzanni calls him "a sudden and dynamic athlete" who has "a mentality to be great."
North is a 6-foot-4, 214-pounder who is rated a four-star prospect and the country's No. 12 receiver prospect by FOX Sports NEXT. He averaged an eye-popping 25.6 yards per reception and a mind-boggling 22.8 yards per carry as a high school senior. Azzanni notes "unlimited potential" in North, who he said "brings everything you are looking for physically."
|Adding Vol legacy prospect Ryan Jenkins to the 2013 signing class gives Tennessee a legit weapon at the slot.|
At least two of the four signees need to contribute immediately, since the departures of Justin Hunter (73 catches), Cordarrelle Patterson (46) and Zach Rogers (32) leave Tennessee with just five scholarship wideouts who combined for a mere 22 receptions last season — sophomore Pig Howard (13), junior Vincent Dallas (9), sophomore Cody Blanc (0), redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles (0) and Jason Croom (0).
"We come in here with five receivers on scholarship," Vol head coach Butch Jones noted. "So selling the ability to play early in a pro-style offense with three-, four- and sometimes five-receiver sets was very attractive."
Historically, freshman wideouts contribute little at Tennessee. For instance, Hunter caught 16 passes as a Vol rookie in 2010 and five-star classmate Da'Rick Rogers caught 11 that same fall.
Azzanni believes rookie receivers can contribute early, however, if they exhibit several key mental and physical traits.
"Mentality and maturity," he said. "Work ethic. How they can pick up the offense quick. How they can pick up the endurance of playing quick, Their physicality.
"We're pretty lucky that the kids we signed here are physically pretty darned close to being able to at least compete. Do they have to develop? Sure, they do. But mentality and maturity separate freshmen all around the country from playing or not playing."
Jones says several factors will determine how quickly the four wideout signees see the field next fall.
"I feel like we're fortunate to have the best receivers coach in the country in Zach Azzanni," Jones said. "The big thing is teaching them how to run routes, breaking points, the functional intelligence that goes into playing the game, how to get release, understanding the passing game and just the fundamentals. I feel very comfortable with Zach ... that he'll have those kids ready to go."
Tennessee most likely will create sub-packages for the four freshmen so they won't have to grasp the entire offensive scheme. That would enable the Vols to tap into their talents a lot sooner. Jones seems eager to see that they can do.
"I'm excited," he said. "Time will tell when they get here, but each individual is different in the way that they grow and develop and mature. Each individual coming into our program will have a different maturity level."
Ultimately, the fact all four wideouts bring different strengths to the table is a plus.
"The great thing when you are compiling a recruiting class is that you take a number of individuals at a certain position — like receiver — and you want to have guys who have different skill sets," Jones said. "I think all of the guys that we signed have skill sets that complement each other."
Azzanni on WRs' role in offense
Azzanni after recruiting celebration
Azzanni, Graham, Thigpen after NSD