Drops don't worry Vols

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Near the end of Saturday's situational scrimmage Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley threw an 18-yard touchdown strike to Josh Malone … who dropped it.

On the very next play Worley threw a 12-yard TD strike to Von Pearson … who was stripped before he could secure the ball.

Two plays later Worley threw a three-yard scoring strike to Marquez North … who dropped it.

Fans who saw only those final two minutes of the scrimmaging probably think the Vols are hurting at wide receiver. Fans who saw the preceding 118 minutes know better. Drops aside, this could be one of the finest wideout corps Tennessee has ever fielded. The talent level is light-years ahead of last fall.

Pearson, the 6-foot-3, 189-pound junior college transfer, is a freak. He isn't as thick as Vol predecessor Cordarrelle Patterson (another JUCO transfer) but he's just as elusive. In an open-field tackling drill he toyed with Vol defensive backs. A spin move left LaDarrell McNeil on the turf, grasping nothing but air. After a second DB also whiffed, the third won a moral victory: He didn't tackle Pearson but he at least got a hand on him as he whistled past.

In addition to his antics in the one-on-one tackling drill Pearson got free in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass from Worley and later deftly pushed off Justin Coleman (without getting caught) for a 20-yard TD catch. Pearson also found time to pop an end-around for a 15-yard gain. He had another one for 50 yards but it was nullified by a holding penalty. Book it: Several SEC defensive backs will be getting whirlpool treatments come fall from wrenching their backs trying to bring down the elusive Mr. Pearson.

The other mid-term newcomer to Tennessee's receiver corps, 6-foot-3, 202-pound freshman Josh Malone, showed some flashes. He made cornerback Malik Foreman whiff during the one-on-one tackling drill and also caught a three-yard touchdown toss from Riley Ferguson.

Massive Jason Croom is learning how to exploit his incredible size (6-feet-4, 234 pounds), although he didn't make a lot of plays in Saturday's scrimmage.

Three wideouts most fans probably have forgotten appear to have improved significantly since last fall. Cody Blanc had a 40-yard catch from Nathan Peterman and reeled in a 36-yarder from Worley. Josh Smith caught TD passes of 33 yards from Ferguson and 12 yards from Peterman. Johnathan Johnson made a couple of nice grabs.

The emergence of Pearson, Malone, Croom, Blanc, Smith and Johnson should make opponents think twice before double-covering last season's freshman sensation, Marquez North. The 6-foot-4, 221-pounder caught 38 passes for a team-high 496 yards last fall, averaging a solid 13.1 yards per reception.

"It always helps having a lot of good people around you," North said following Saturday's workout. "Plus, we're interchanging. There's a lot of improvement. Everybody's buying in."

Croom believes Tennessee's new-found receiver depth is going to make life miserable for some SEC defensive backs come fall.

"DBs don't rotate," he said, "so if you've got fresh receivers coming in there each time that's going to break them down eventually."

The drops at the end of Saturday's workout, he believes, were no big deal.

"Today was inconsistent but we'll improve it," Croom said. "That's just something that comes along with being young. We're still learning how things are supposed to be done around here."

Given all of the progress being made at the wideout positions, Worley isn't too concerned about Saturday's dropped balls, either. He figures they were just lapses in concentration.

"We had three dropped balls out of my four plays, which always hurts," he noted. "I talked to all three of the guys, (saying) ‘We've got to come through. This is live or die, win or lose right here."

North, best known for a spectacular lunging 39-yard catch he made reaching around a South Carolina defender last October, is making more highlight-reel grabs these days.

"He's made some big plays for us this spring, similar to the catch in the South Carolina game," Worley said. "He's made several catches like that. He's done a better job of going up and getting the ball, attacking it. And he's broken some big runs after the catch.

"It's been good seeing his explosiveness come out."

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