A position that appeared to be one of the deepest on Tennessee’s roster heading into 2015 has been one that is now marred by attrition. The Vols boasted a deep nucleus of returning talent at wide receiver thought to headline Butch Jones’ spread offense, but a combination of injuries, dismissals and struggles has plagued this unit since the season began.
The team’s leading pass catcher currently is tight end Ethan Wolf, who’s hauled in 157 yards and two touchdowns despite averaging just two catches a game. Freshman receiver Preston Williams is next with 117 yards and two scores himself, but 98 of those yards and both touchdowns came against FCS opponent Western Carolina. Against FBS teams, Williams has notched 19 yards.
The entire position group has failed to create separation at times and, combined with a still-developing offensive line and the downfield passing game woes, has thrust Tennessee into the position of being the No. 11 passing offense in the SEC.
But it’s not entirely all doom and gloom with the receiving corps. A host of injuries to key players and the dismissal of last year’s leading wideout, Pig Howard, have thrust younger players into important roles they’re still learning. Freshman Jauan Jennings moved over from quarterback to receiver in fall camp and ranks fifth on the team with nine receptions for 87 yards . Redshirt sophomore Josh Smith, who's caught nine balls for 104 yards, seems to finally be completely healthy for the first time in 2015. Those two make up a critical portion of a unit that has experienced its fair share of adversity.
"We're still teaching a youngster in Jauan Jennings how to play wide receiver,” Butch Jones said Wednesday. “Josh Smith has done a very good job of mentoring and guiding. I thought Josh Smith probably had his best practice he's had all year [Tuesday]. He finally looked 100 percent healthy. He looked smooth in and out of his breaks, caught the ball exceptionally well.”
Tennessee needs guys like Smith and Jennings to step up with a large portion of its roster still battling injuries. Jason Croom hasn’t played this season while rehabilitating from two knee surgeries over the past year. Johnothan Johnson has been limited for much of the entire season with a leg injury, and Marquez North has experienced a litany of injuries that continue to stunt his growth and hinder his playing time.
“Josh Malone has been another individual who really has been a model of consistency. I've been so proud of him,” Jones said. “He's really improved his game. We have to get him the football, but he's worked exceptionally hard — his effort, his blocking, his fundamentals, his details. He's done a great job. Johnathon Johnson has been limited, but he's getting back to being healthy again.. I think Von Pearson is starting to get back to regain his old form. He's done some good things in practice.”
There is no magical solution to jumpstart the passing game. The Vols will need a combination of improved passing from quarterback Josh Dobbs, consistent blocking from the offensive line and progress from the wide receivers to put it all together. With a Georgia pass defense that ranks No. 2 in the SEC coming to town Saturday, that growth won’t get any easier as the season continues.
"They have had some good practices,” Jones said. “They have done some good things in the games, but I think it is just an overall level of consistency in our throw game. We talk about it every week. It is not one particular position group. It's all 11 individuals winning their one-on-one matchups and executing and doing their jobs."