It’s true. Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni sees some elements of the iconic “Nightmare on Elm Street” villain in Malone, who exhibited scary potential in catching six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the Orange & White game last spring. He was so erratic in preseason camp, however, that he spent most of August running third-team … meaning he was no better than seventh among Vol receivers.
“He was a three on the depth chart in training camp,” Azzanni told InsideTennessee. “I’m not sure people realized that, but he climbed his way out of that by just being consistent, coming back every day. He was like Freddy Krueger. We couldn’t kill him. He just kept coming back and coming back, and that’s what you want.”
Malone came back, all right, rising from third-team to second-team to starter by Game 4 at Georgia. He’ll start his sixth game in succession tonight at South Carolina. That’s pretty good for a guy who wasn’t among the team’s top six wideouts two months ago.
“That’s a credit to him,” Azzanni said. “Freshmen typically get down and have their rollercoasters but he kept coming back, getting better little by little. He’s still doing that, and I expect him to keep doing that for the next three years.”
Making Malone’s August struggles all the more challenging is the fact he was a highly touted five-star prospect who had never been buried on a depth chart before. So, what was Malone’s reaction when he realized he was a third-teamer?
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him,” Azzanni deadpanned. “I’m assuming it was frustration, which is good. You need to fight through some adversity, especially a guy that’s never had to do that. He’s been a one (first-teamer) all his life, so the fact it got a little hard for him I think has really showed his true character. He’s been able to fight out of that, which is a credit to him.”
In addition to plenty of perseverance and determination, Malone has tremendous size for a college freshman. He packs 204 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame and has the build to carry another 20 pounds. Last week, however, he dropped 10 pounds while battling an intestinal virus.
“It was a bad little sickness I got, throwing up all over the place,” he recalled. “I wasn’t worried about not playing, though. I got about five pounds back before the game.”
Malone caught just one pass last Saturday against fourth-ranked Alabama but it was a big one – a nine-yard second-quarter touchdown grab that trimmed a 27-0 deficit to 27-7. It was his first college touchdown but, more importantly, it snapped a Vol streak of nine quarters against Football Bowl Subdivision foes without a TD.
“It felt good,” he said. “It was probably one of the best moments I’ve had – getting into the end zone. As an offense, it was good breaking that little cold streak we was going through. It was a major relief, trying to get the offense going.”
Malone believes the offense will keep going. That optimism is based in part on his bond with Joshua Dobbs, who has ascended to No. 1 quarterback in the wake of Justin Worley’s shoulder injury. The two developed quite a nice chemistry while both were second- and third-teamers back in August.
“We got a lot of work in during training camp, when he (Dobbs) wasn’t starting,” Malone said. “We used to throw a lot after practice, stuff like that. It’s carried over a lot. There’s a lot of good timing.”
In addition to the chemistry with Dobbs, Malone has good chemistry with his fellow receivers. The veterans have given the rookie a bunch of help.
“Having Jason Croom, Marquez North, Alton Howard and those guys around him has helped him grow and mature,” Azzanni said. “The daily habits for Josh are big. That’s what helped him every week to get a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better. That’s what’s enabled him to help our offense.”
Through eight games Malone has 20 receptions for 218 yards, a 10.9 yards-per-catch average. He’s on pace to catch 30 balls for 327 yards. Those are good numbers, although they fall short of the ones North put up as a freshman last fall (38 catches, 496 yards, 13.1 per-catch average).
"It's really unfair to compare,” head coach Butch Jones said. “Both of those two individuals bring a different dynamic. They're very similar in terms of their competitive character, their makeup, their workmanlike approach, their love for the game – so they have those similarities – but they also have some differences."
Still, North sees some of himself in Malone, noting: “He’s a prideful guy. He’s got a lot of positives and he learns from his mistakes. He’s going to always get better at his craft.”
Malone has gotten better at his craft, all right. He has made huge strides since August. Asked where he feels he has progressed most, he replied: “I feel like my route running overall has gotten better. I'm starting to get open a lot more than at the beginning of the season."
Tennessee’s offensive coordinator offered a different take when InsideTennessee asked about Malone’s greatest area of growth.
"For him, the biggest stride has been in his intensity and in his practice habits,” Mike Bajakian said. “Obviously, as a true freshman, there's a little bit of an adjustment that goes with the speed of the game and the expectations on the practice field. Once he was able to embrace those he's made great strides on the field during games."
Jones also credits improved practice habits with making Malone a more productive player.
"He has continuously gotten better, week in and week out,” the head coach said. “That's a byproduct of his work ethic, hanging on everything Coach Z (Azzanni) tells him. He takes pride in his performance, and he’s very, very smart. He writes down all the things he needs to work on. The biggest change in him is probably his practice habits – understanding what it takes to have great practices – and now you're seeing it come out on game day, as well.
“I know he was excited to get his first touchdown, and we expect many more of those to come in his career."