The rankings provided expectations. The April performance merely raised them.
The former Scout four-star that caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior campaign in Gallatin, Tennessee, gave recruiting junkies a major “I told you so” moment with his impressive performance at the Orange & White game in April in front of 68,548 fans.
The longest play spanning 79 yards, the freshman that Scout rated as the best college football prospect from the Volunteer State’s 2014 class finished with a team-high 181 receiving yards on six catches with three touchdowns.
Training camp is a different animal from the 15 spring practices. Trade out the days off between trips to Haslam Field and a two-week break to get out of town for a daily grind that measures mental toughness and culminates with opening the season.
Malone hasn’t hit the figurative wall, but he also hasn’t come close to looking like the player Big Orange Country saw torch the Tennessee defense on April 12.
“Josh just has a lot further to go to prove that he’s a tough football player mentally and physically,” wide receivers coach Azzanni said. “He’s never been pushed like this. He hasn’t had to strain. The great thing about our football program is the guys that don’t strain and give good effort consistently, they stick out a little bit. I think he’s slowly but surely learning that.”
Azzanni characterized Malone’s camp as having been a “roller coaster” as late as last week. However, the second-year assistant says he’s also seen progress out of the Station Camp High School product.
“They all kind of hit at different times,” the assistant said. “Some of them push through a little better than others. I am seeing some good things. I am pleased.”
Malone, a former U.S. Army All-American, is guilty just like other Vols rookies of attempting to make plays using the same set of skills they did in their prep days. From the route tree the getting off press coverage, catching passes versus Southeastern Conference defensive backs is an entirely different task from what players like Malone faced in the past.
“We’ve got some bad habits that I’m trying to break,” Azzanni said. “Some of those young guys got away with one-handed catches in high school. Well, guess what, they’re not jumping over little short guys that aren’t playing football anymore. They’re going up against some of the best in the country.”
Whatever wasn’t there through much of August may have shown up at Practice 13.
“(Malone)’s had a tough camp and very proud of him,” Jones said Wednesday night. “He fought back; he’s been battling some injuries and I thought tonight gut he really stepped it up. So, it was very encouraging. Josh Malone is a very prideful individual. He expects to do great things. As part of that maturity level is when things don’t go quite as well as the way you planned it, which is life, how do you handle the next snap? How do you bounce back, and I thought he bounced back exceptionally well and was very proud of him tonight moving forward.”
Azzanni has gone on record saying he wants to play at least 8-9 receivers in games if the Vols are able to both maintain possession and play at the frenzied pace they desire. If Malone gets the train back on the tracks, he’s undoubtedly a part of that group.
Learn more about Tennessee’s progress through camp by clicking on the InsideTennessee video of Jones following Practice 13 or on the video of Azzanni speaking about his position group.
Butch Jones video interview
Zach Azzanni video interview
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