The former Scout five-star wide receiver, who was forced to retake the ACT August 10 after his score was flagged by the NCAA Eligibility Center, is expected to play Saturday despite missing all of fall camp. Williams’ was cleared by the NCAA Thursday, adding an instant and much-needed weapon to the Vols’ thinning wide receiving corps.
Jason Croom is currently out with a knee injury and won’t be back for at least 3-5 weeks. Freshman Vincent Perry was ruled out for the season Monday with a meniscus tear, while sophomores Marquez North and Josh Smith are also battling injuries. The leading receiver from last season, Alton Howard, is suspended for the Bowling Green game for a violation of team rules.
That leaves Williams — a freshman who is just now starting to log practice time a week before the season begins — as a needed entity Saturday against Bowling Green on a unit that, when healthy, is one of the deepest on the team.
“I fully anticipate Preston Williams playing in the game,” Butch Jones said at Monday’s press conference. “He’s an individual who came in over the weekend and really worked on his conditioning. Now to what extent the role he’ll have in the game, that will be determined and dictated by his week in practice.”
The Hampton, Georgia, native couldn’t participate in fall camp while he awaited clearance by the NCAA, but that didn’t stop him from individually conditioning himself to prepare for the season. Yet despite Williams’ additional effort that put him in a position to be ready for Saturday’s opener, his head coach still doesn’t want to thrust too big a workload on his prized recruit.
“He’s worked very hard on his own with his conditioning levels,” Jones said. “You have to make sure that you don’t overload him immediately. He is a young man that had no training camp and no structured conditioning. He’s done it all on his own, so he’s really been removed from our football team, so we have to make sure that we take it as a step-by-step process, that we don’t ask too much of him too early.”
The 6-foot-4, 209-pounder is also still rehabilitating from a torn ACL he suffered in November during his senior season of high school, but Jones described Williams as being almost 100 percent healthy coming into game week.
“He’s in the mid-90s (percentile wise),” Jones said. “I think once he gets into football condition he’ll be fine.”
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni echoed his coach's sentiments on Williams' healing process.
“As far as I know, he’s almost there," Azzanni said during Tennessee's media day." I’ll let (Jones) comment more on injury stuff, but as far as I know, we’re going to get him out there and see what he can do. You’re not going to go pound him Day 1, you’re going to work him in and see how much he can handle.”
That’s tough to do without receiving a single snap in fall camp as a freshman, but Williams isn’t your typical young player. The Lovejoy High School standout ranked as the No. 1 overall wide receiver last season and recorded 43 receptions for 916 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing time with a knee injury. He's already put on weight since coming to campus and showcased his athletic ability in summer workouts.
"I’m not sure how much weight he’s gained. It’s like 20 pounds, I mean, it’s unbelievable," Azzanni said. "He looks like a different kid than he did when he walked in the door three or four months ago already. He’s got his skill set. He’s 6-foot-5. He can do a lot of different things. He’s a great athlete. I have no idea what’s going to happen when we get him out there. Where he’s at, I don't know. We’re going to work him in and see how much he can handle.”
Now that Williams is as healthy as he’s been in nearly ten months and finally cleared to play, it will be up to how much he’s able to handle physically and mentally that determines how much Tennessee fans see of their much-anticipated potential star Saturday afternoon.
“You can run straight ahead and you can try to manufacture conditioning type of scenarios, but the acceleration, de-acceleration, getting in and out of cuts, the finishing of plays, playing a football style, has a wear and tear on his body all to its own,” Jones said. “We just have to be very smart and very creative in how we get him into the game and get him a package that he can handle and not ask him to do too much.”