published Friday, March 15th, 2013

Zach Azzanni intense in motivating Vols' receivers

KNOXVILLE — Zach Azzanni may look like the quiet type of football coach.

Put the 36-year-old father of three girls 5 years old and younger on a practice field with a crop of young and inexperienced wide receivers, and that perception will change.

His first three spring practices at Tennessee have been a test of his patience, but Azzanni actually relishes the chance to use his energy, raise his voice and whip a green group of Volunteers' wideouts into shape.

"There was no foundation there," he said after Thursday morning's practice. "They're all young. They didn't play, so they had no idea what they were doing. I have a bunch of guys that really have no foundation. I just get to kind of mold them my way, because there's no habits yet.

"They're just out there, so I get to put my stamp on them."

That process is under way at a very basic level.

The Vols' new receiving corps has dropped passes, lined up wrong and run incorrect routes, and Azzanni has let them know about it.

His voice doesn't boom across Haslam Field or the indoor field at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, but Azzanni has been animated and demanding.

"That's my style," said the former Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin assistant. "I think even with older guys, you've got to be demanding. You can't let them breathe, and you can't give them an inch.

"They're 18- to 22-year-old kids, and they'll take what you give them. You've got to be on them all day, you've got to be demanding and you can't compromise. We say [with] the most committed guy and the least committed guy, we're not coming down -- they're coming up."

The decisions of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to leave Tennessee a year early for the NFL draft put the Vols in their challenging predicament, but Azzanni calls it his silver lining.

At his disposal are a sophomore who missed all of preseason camp last August (Pig Howard), a former high school tailback and safety (Cody Blanc), two redshirt freshmen (Drae Bowles and Jason Croom), an early enrollee from high school (Paul Harris) and a former tailback who joined the unit in the offseason (Devrin Young).

Juniors Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter are the group's elder statesmen, and they've combined for 20 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns in their college careers.

It makes for plenty of correcting, yelling and second and third trips through drills, and Azzanni admitted he doesn't "hold back."

"I think it's what you have to be in this offense, and I think it helps," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "We need those guys to grow up quickly. That's the reality of it, so there needs to be a sense of urgency, and there is.

"You can tell by his coaching style. He does a great job of developing young receivers. He's bringing those guys along at the pace that they need to be brought along."

A former walk-on, Carter made his name last year during spring practice and earned a spot in the rotation even with Hunter and Patterson, two certain top-40 draft picks next month, on the field.

"The offseason's always important," he said after Saturday's practice, "and I've just talked to guys about making a name for themselves and trying to get noticed for the good things.

"Coming in with this new staff, it's hard getting used to, but we understand what they're wanting from us. It might take us a little while to get what they want, but as far as the energy, everybody has good energy and high tempo. It just might take us a little bit to get what they're expecting from us."

Azzanni is pleased with how the receivers have responded to his tough coaching style, and though it's been frustrating, he said that's what drives him and keeps him going.

"That's the thing, is there's no resistance going on," he said. "They're not like, 'This is dumb.' They're all in.

"They might not know what they're doing, and they might not know how the pace the practice is going yet, but they're coming back for more. They're living in my office, they're living in their meeting room, they're trying to get better and I can appreciate that. I can coach that."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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