Wharton's making his case

InsideTennessee gives you in-depth stories on Vol football. Check out this one on a relatively obscure newcomer who could win a spot in the receiver rotation:

Stuck behind sophomore sensation Marquez North, Junior College All-American Von Pearson, spring game star Josh Malone and massive Jason Croom, unheralded three-star freshman Vic Wharton appeared to be a year away from contributing as a Tennessee receiver.

Apparently, he didn’t get the memo. His performance in early preseason drills has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise of fall camp.

“I've been doing this a long time,” Vol receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “As far as habits – how we do things – I have not ever had a freshman come in and have a first-day practice, a second-day practice like Vic Wharton had.”

Azzanni, who previously coached receivers at Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Florida, Western Kentucky and Wisconsin, loves the fact Wharton is a self-starter who learns quickly, practices intensely and accepts coaching graciously.

"He's a great kid; he has a great mentality; he doesn't get down,” Azzanni said. “I can get on his rear end … he likes hard coaching, he wants to get better."

Senior running back Devrin Young, who is trying to fend off Wharton for the punt-return duties, also is impressed with the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder from Spring Hill.

“I'm very proud of Vic,” Young said. “You know, it's not the easiest playing under Coach Azzanni. He has a high standard, and Vic's a freshman. But that's not fazing him. He's making plays and he's there helping open up the run game (with his blocking). I've known Vic for a while, and I'm just really proud of how he's playing right now."

Whereas some players have egos as fragile as eggshells, Wharton’s is as tough as leather.

“I like hard coaching,” he said. “Coach Z is hard on me but I like to learn everything. If he wants to be hard on me, I’ll accept everything and always accept criticism.”

Basically, the key to keeping Azzanni happy is simple:

“Just getting a body on a body,” Wharton said, referring to downfield blocking. “That’s what I’m trying to make sure I do: If the ball’s not thrown to me, make sure I get upfield and find someone to block.”

Wharton didn’t have to do a lot of blocking in high school. He didn’t have to learn a lot of technique, either. College is a different animal.

"In high school, you get away with things without having technique – just off your athleticism,” Wharton said. “Now you have to have technique, you have to have habits. That's what Coach Z teaches us.”

(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

A nephew of former Vol basketball standout Brandon Wharton, Vic is one of six second-generation Vols in this so-called “legacy class.” He believes their bond is powerful and helpful.

“I think that helps us a lot,” he said. “As freshmen, some of us may be struggling right now – not used to the tempo and not used to being pushed as hard as we’re being pushed. They’re pushing us to the limits.”

No one pushes harder than Azzanni, whose troops may be on the verge of restoring Tennessee’s reputation as Wide Receiver U. North showed superstar potential in leading the Vols with 496 receiving yards as a true freshman last fall. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Croom appears to be blossoming after averaging 14.9 yards on 18 catches as a rookie last season. Pearson made ESPN’s “Plays of the Day” with a spectacular practice grab last March and Malone stole the show in the Orange & White Game with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Alton Howard is back after leading the 2013 Vols in receptions (44) and receiving TDs (3). With Josh Smith and Johnathon Johnson looking really good in preseason camp, the competition for playing time is fierce. Wharton isn’t intimidated, however.

“It's a fight every day,” he said with a smile. “That's what Coach Z teaches, and that's what every receiver always does. You can't be part of WRU without being competitive."

Although the competition at wideout is intense, the older guys seem dedicated to helping the younger guys.

“Our competitiveness is a good competitiveness,” Wharton said. “Everyone is teaching each other. Von (Pearson) and I play the same position, but he's still teaching me everything I need to know.”

One thing Wharton doesn’t need to learn is how to catch a football. Whether he’s fielding punts or reeling in passes, he has two of the surest hands on the team. He has mastered the art of looking the ball into his grasp before moving to Step 2.

“I'm just trying to CTT right now,” he said. “Catch … tuck … turn.”

This strategy is working so well that Tennessee’s receiver rotation just might include an unheralded three-star who didn’t get the memo about all of the superior talent ahead of him.

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