Spring preview: wideouts without Howard

InsideTennessee provides subscribers with the most comprehensive Tennessee football coverage around. Scroll down to read about what to watch for from the wide recover position this spring.

Tennessee will be without its leading pass-catcher when spring practice begins Friday.

Alton Howard, who hauled in a team-best 44 catches and three receiving touchdowns in 2013, is taking an "indefinite leave of absence" and is away from the team because of personal issues, according to multiple reports and later confirmed by InsideTennessee.

The former Scout three-star prospect was a versatile weapon for the Vols last fall, utilized in the slot, split out wide and occasionally getting handoffs on end-arounds — rushing 18 times for 93 yards.

While Howard is a pint-sized wideout at just 5 feet 8, 186 pounds, he certainly leaves a large offensive void to fill.

The good news for Tennessee, however, is that it looks to have more depth and talent at the wide receiver position now than it did last fall.

The wide receiver depth chart will certainly see some changes in Howard's absence, which creates opportunities for several players during the allotted 15 spring practices.

Howard's 388 receiving yards last fall were second to only Marquez North, who is now the unchallenged head of the wideout corps this spring.

North had what Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni dubs a "big" season during his freshman campaign, hauling in 38 catchers (the second most by a freshman in school history) for 496 yards and a touchdown.

North showed flashes or brilliance last season, highlighted by a one-handed grab down the sideline late in the Vols' upset of then-ninth-ranked South Carolina.

But, as Azzanni will openly tell you, he also showed rust — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder played mostly Wildcat quarterback at Mallard Creek (N.C.) High School and was in for "a shock" when he first set foot on the Haslam practice fields. He's likely to continue to improve with another year of coaching.

"Man, he was raw...like as raw as it gets," Azzanni said. "But I was really hard on him and I've seen him improve leaps and bounds since then. He wants to be great. Really, he hasn't come close to reaching his potential, which is pretty scary to think about."

<A HREF=//tennessee.scout.com/a.z?s=7&p=8&c=1&nid=7550519>Jason Croom</A>
But in order for Team 118 to hit the ground running this spring, it also needs its two mega-talented newcomers to not run into as many freshman speed bumps as North did.

And North is actually going out of his way to make sure it's a smooth transition process for the highly-recruited freshman Josh Malone.

"They do everything together," Azzanni said of North and Malone. "That's neat to see that bond already. North, you know, he's coaching him up."

Malone, who ranked as Scout's No. 12 wide receiver in the 2014 recruiting class, has impressed Azzanni by his progress since he arrived on campus in January.

"From what limited amount of time I've been able to see him, he's been grinding, man," Azzanni told InsideTennessee. "He's blowing up in the weight room and just eager to learn. He's doing all the right things so far."

But even the highly-praised prospect from Station Camp (Tenn.) High School isn't perfect.

Azzanni said Malone will be focusing on his get off this spring, adding that he sometimes rocks in his stance and is "somewhat" slow off the line.

However, Azzanni said it's rare to find a prospect with a good get off fresh out of high school as four and five-star talents can beat defenders with sheer speed, size and talent.

That's not the case in the SEC, Azzanni said, as corners are skilled in pressing and jamming receivers at the line. Without a quick twitch, getting open becomes nearly impossible.

That said, Azzanni praises Malone for his sound hands, "mature" body control and an overall skillset that has the coach "giddy."

North was really Tennessee's only big-play threat last season and Azzanni expects Malone to create a splash immediately because he can stretch defenses down field.

"(Malone is) so talented," Azzanni told IT. "He has every chance in the world to come in and compete for us right away."

While Azzanni is expecting Malone to crack the two-deep right away, he expects it from JUCO transfer LaVon Pearson.

<A HREF=//tennessee.scout.com/a.z?s=7&p=8&c=1&nid=7550519>Jason Croom</A>
"We brought him in to compete right away," Azzanni said.

So far, Pearson's doing just that.

The Feather River (Calif.) Community College prospect, who burst onto the recruiting scene late, draws nothing but praise from Azzanni.

"I went and saw him practice a few times and he just goes at it and practices hard," Azzanni said. "He's a competitor and he's hungry. He's a guy you want to have in your meeting room."

Azzanni says both Pearson and Malone are extremely competitive and thinks that will bring out the best in the returning receivers, who will also be given more chances with Howard out of the picture.

Howard wore many hats last fall, but the majority of his workload was in the slot. So, the position is practically wide open.

Remember that Ryan Jenkins will miss the entire spring because on an injury, which obviously hampers his chances of working into the rotation.

It's also worth noting that coaches say Devrin Young will get more looks in the backfield this spring than at receiver.

That opens to door for slotman Johnathon Johnson, who tallied 13 receptions for 189 yards last fall but was slowed with injuries.

"Johnathon is a hard-worker. He's that ideal mold for the slot," Azzanni told IT last fall. "Don't sleep on him, we expect to use him more and more as time goes on."

<A HREF=//tennessee.scout.com/a.z?s=7&p=8&c=1&nid=7550519>Jason Croom</A>
The big-bodied Jason Croom and local product Josh Smith also saw time in the slot last season. Both experienced up and downs in the fall, with Croom being criticized for not playing physical and Smith having issues with drops.

Azzanni has high expectations for both players this spring, saying Croom hit "a stride" late last season and "started to figure it out."

"Jason, man, he's close," Azzanni said. "And when he figures it out it's not going to be a good thing for defenses. That's a big man."

While Smith took heavy flak from the fan base for his drops, Azzanni maintains confidence in the youngster.

Time after time, Azzanni called Smith the most "consistent" player at practice, adding that Smith now needs to learn how to carry that confidence over to Saturdays.

With more depth headed into spring, Tennessee will likely use even more four-wide sets this season. North, Malone, Pearson, Croom, Smith and Johnson will jostle for the majority of those snaps with Drae Bowles, Cody Blanc and Jacob Carter battling for the leftovers.

A dark horse to work into the rotation is early enrollee Neiko Creamer. However, his upside seems to be at tight end.

Questions are swirling at wideout as the Vols get spring camp under way, but Azzanni has confidence in his group even with all the uncertainly.

"We have the right group of guys in my meeting room," Azzanni told IT. "That's the first step. And it's a big step."

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