Tennessee has staked claim to the title "Wide Receiver U" for a number of decades.
The program has been able to boast of elite wide receiver play under a number of head coaches but really took off under Johnny Majors and then his successor Phillip Fulmer. In recent years, defenses have found little reason to fear the Volunteer wide receivers. However, this season that has changed.
Perhaps the loudest complaints from the Monday morning message board coaches has been that the Tennessee offense does not stretch the field with their wide receivers. In fact in 2015, those complaints were warranted and the stats backed up those criticisms. Von Pearson's team-leading stats for Team 119 pale in comparison to Team 120's leading receiver in Josh Malone.
2015: Pearson: 13 games, 38 catches, 409 yards, 10.8 ypc., 3 TDs
2016: Malone: 9 games, 31 catches, 556 yards, 17.9 ypc., 7 TDs
Those stats show significant growth and there are three regular-season games left to add to those impressive stats.
When comparing the ability of Team 119 and Team 120 to get the ball down the field to wideouts, the difference is night and day when looking at the first nine games of both seasons.
2015: nine pass receptions of 20 yards or more
2016: 22 pass receptions of 20 yards or more
To add to that stark contrast, the two-headed monster of Malone and Jauan Jennings have a combined 12 touchdown receptions. Last season, the entire wide receiver corps had nine TD catches.
"Our goal coming in was to come in and turn Tennessee around," Malone said Wednesday. "I take it a day at a time and work at my craft. Jauan is a fiery guy and is embracing his role."
While there is evidence of significant improvement in the explosiveness of Butch Jones' offense, the critics still will ask how these stats match up to the rest of the SEC? While Team 119 would have surely been at the bottom of the league with just nine, the 22 big plays the Vol receivers have recorded this season places them in the top third. Here's a look at the SEC's leaders in completions of 20 yards or more:
|29||Missouri, Texas A&M|
|20||Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina|
Those numbers show that the Vols are getting the ball downfield to its playmakers at a level that is on pace or even better than their peers throughout the SEC. When looking at SEC east rivals, the Vols boast a more potent downfield attack than Florida and Georgia. The Gators and the Dawgs have 17 and 15 receptions, respectively.
So where do the Vols go from here?
Joey Kent, the all-time leading pass catcher for Wide Receiver U, knows plenty about what it takes to succeed at the position.
"There has been a lot of talk about the wide receiver position over the last few years," Kent said, "but I like the fact Malone and Jennings have established themselves as starters and they have made big plays for us this season. I've also enjoyed seeing the freshmen step up like (Tyler) Byrd, who has been consistent in the slot. (Brandon) Johnson and (Marquez) Callaway have both earned more playing time through their play, so the future is bright for the wide receiver position at Tennessee."
Much of the often-discussed struggles of this offense have been based on reality, but the stance that this team doesn't have playmakers on the outside isn't factual. The final three games will only allow assistant coach Zach Azzanni's wide receivers more opportunities to reclaim their once proud mantra of "Wide Receiver U."