KNOXVILLE — In just three practices, Tennessee freshman receiver Marquez North already has caught the eye of some of his teammates.
There’s a long way to go, but a couple of the Volunteers’ defensive players said they’ve noticed No. 8 amid the grind of early August practices, and Butch Jones isn’t pumping the brakes, either.
“Marquez is still learning the little fine details of playing receiver: breaking points, releases,” Tennessee’s first-year coach said following Sunday afternoon’s practice, the Vols’ fourth of preseason training camp. “I think the big thing is stamina and endurance. In three very short practices, in a very small time, he has proven he’s going to be one of our playmakers.
“He’s dynamic, he’s strong, he’s physical, he can run and we need him offensively. What you see is when your players bring him up, it’s a level of respect right now they have for him. He’s extremely intelligent. He knows every single receiver position on the field already. We’re very, very excited about him.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound North was the Vols’ highest-rated signee in February’s class, and the Charlotte, N.C., product already faced some expectations before his first college practice due to how Tennessee’s receiving corps struggled during spring practice.
Yet he’s already catching some eyes from his teammates on the other side of the ball, as defensive end Marlon Walls and linebacker Brent Brewer named him in post-practice interviews on Sunday.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni pushes North as hard as any other player in his unit.
“He’s a great kid, and he doesn’t say, ‘Boo,’” Azzanni said after Tennessee’s first practice. “He just tries to go and do what you want him to do. He’s a pleaser, which I like. I can get on him, and it doesn’t bother him. I love that.”
With Dallas Thomas, Tennessee’s starting left guard last season, made his NFL preseason debut with the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night, and the Vols are looking to replace the one link in the team’s strongest chain.
Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard, the sixth and seventh men on the offensive line in 2012, are trying to slide into that position, though the competition is just now taking shape.
“As of now, we’re just playing,” said Jackson, a 6-foot-2, 307-pound junior with five career starts who’s played in every game the past two seasons. “One thing about this sport you play is it is going to be somewhat business-like when it comes to who’s starting and who’s coming off the bench. We just make sure we help each other and still stay teammates throughout the whole process."
The versatile Bullard, a senior who’s transferred from Notre Dame two years ago, has played every position in his Tennessee career and can slide to any spot should any of the Vols’ other four ironclad starters go down, but Jones is looking for the options beyond the top six.
“You can never have enough O-linemen, so they’re going through a great competitive battle right now,” he said. “I’ve said it time in and time out: we need to develop depth in the offensive line. Having those two battle it out is extremely healthy, but the freshmen, they’re getting kind of thrown into the fire right away.”
Jackson said Tennessee’s offensive line isn’t relaxing despite some preseason attention.
“We want to be physical,” he said. “We want to be fast. We want to make sure that everything is good: effort, footwork, physicality. Anything that we can work on, we’re going to work on it.”
During one special teams period during practice in which a handful of Vols work on catching punts, receiver Pig Howard dropped two punts and first-year wideouts Josh Smith and Johnathon Johnson each muffed one.
“We’re no way, shape or form — at all — to really understanding who our punt returner is right now,” Jones said.
The coach, who’s looking for consistency, reliability and trust at the position, singled out receiver Ryan Jenkins and cornerback Cameron Sutton among that group and mentioned junior Devrin Young, perhaps an early favorite to be the main factor in Tennessee’s return game.
“They have a skill set for it,” Jones said, “so that’ll be a competitive battle all the way up to the first game and throughout the course of the season.”
Safety Byron Moore worked out on the side of practice with what Jones called a minor hamstring issue. … Linebackers Justin King and Christian Harris both joined Moore in “The Hole,” the blocked-off area in the corner of the practice field where injured players exercise. … Tight end Justin Meredith remains out indefinitely with the hamstring problem that’s plagued him since his arrival in January 2012.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...