Several wideouts couldn’t get open. Several couldn’t catch the ball when they got open. Several more couldn’t gain anything on their own after making the occasional grab. There was one playmaker in the bunch, Marquez North, and he was a true freshman battling the usual problems with inconsistency. Ultimately, the 2013 receiver corps may have been the weakest group assembled on The Hill in three decades.
Fortunately for the Big Orange, the most dramatic improvement from 2013 to 2014 has been made in the wideout ranks. The signing of JUCO All-American Von Pearson was a huge step. So was the signing of five-star high school standout Josh Malone. Both gained valuable experience by enrolling at mid-term and participating in spring practice. They combine with North to give Tennessee a pass-catching trio that may be equal to any in college football.
Pearson made a diving catch early in spring practice so spectacular that it was featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s “Plays of the Day” that evening. Moreover, teammates literally gushed when talking about his explosive athleticism.
Malone also got rave reviews from his fellow Vols during spring practice, then showed why in the Orange & White game, parlaying six catches into 181 yards and three touchdowns. In case you’re wondering, 30 yards per catch is pretty good.
As for North, he appears ready to prove the old axiom that players generally make the most progress from Year 1 to Year 2. By all accounts, he had a terrific spring and could double the good numbers (38 catches, 496 yards) he posted last fall.
Tennessee’s Big Three literally is a “big” three. Pearson measures 6-feet-3 and 181 pounds. Malone goes 6-feet-3 and 202 pounds. North packs 221 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. Can you imagine 5-foot-9, 175-pound cornerbacks trying to cover these guys?
Pearson, Malone and North alone ensure that Tennessee’s receiver corps will be much improved in 2014. Still, they’re only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Combining the size of a tight end (6-feet-5, 234 pounds) with the receiving skills of a wideout, sophomore Jason Croom is a matchup nightmare now that he has learned to exploit his imposing height and heft. He averaged 14.9 yards on 18 catches as a redshirt freshman last fall but should be even more productive in 2014.
Junior Johnathon Johnson came on at the end of 2013, catching eight passes for 111 yards in the last five games of the season to finish with 13 grabs for 189 yards. He continued his progress in the spring and appears likely to be a solid contributor in the 2014 passing game.
Then there’s an apparent bonus … the return of Alton Howard following a four-month absence. The 5-foot-8, 186-pound junior led the 2013 Vols in receptions (44) and receiving touchdowns (3). He also averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 18 fly sweeps. “Pig” is participating in offseason workouts and is listed in the 2014 media guide, suggesting he will be back with the Vols when preseason camp opens in August.
Cody Blanc is back for his junior year after making one memorable catch as a sophomore last fall. It went for 43 yards against top-ranked Alabama. Also returning is sophomore Drae Bowles, who contributed mostly on special teams a year ago.
Joining the cast in August will be 2014 signee Vic Wharton, nephew of former basketball star Brandon Wharton. Vic is a 5-foot-11, 192-pounder who also excels as a return specialist.
And don’t forget Devrin Young. Although listed as a running back, the 5-foot-8, 178-pound senior will be utilized as a receiver at times this fall.
Bottom line: Tennessee’s receiving corps could go from being one of the worst in program history last fall to being one of the best in program history this fall.
Spring Rewind: Von Pearson