KNOXVILLE — Footballs were hitting the turf, players were lining up incorrectly and the simple errors were glaring.
Six practices later, those mistakes are occurring less frequently for Tennessee's young receivers.
The Volunteers' new wideouts may not have turned the corner at the midway point of spring practice, but the unit's improvement since the first session is easily noticeable.
"Night and day right now," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after practice last Thursday, the Vols' final workout before the team broke for Tennessee's spring break this week. "Can we get better? Absolutely. They're making plays, and that's the one thing: A few plays go your way, you walk off the field with a completely different attitude."
During the initial practices, even simple drills gave the young receiving corps trouble. The Vols struggled to execute bubble screens and dropped passes, and in many cases players would have to redo their reps during drills at the demands of receivers coach Zach Azzanni. It was easy to see that the group with no seniors, three players with receptions in games, three freshmen and a former tailback new to the position had a long and challenging road ahead of it.
Bajakian was encouraged after the sixth practice with what the receivers did in making some tough catches "with defenders draped all over them" for big plays.
"That's a big difference," he said. "We always say there are four to six plays in the course of a game that will determine the win or loss. You don't know what four or six plays they're going to be, and oftentimes it comes down to a guy making a play on the perimeter in a critical situation."
Beyond the simplicities of catching the ball, pre-snap alignments and precision routes, Bajakian is looking to see which players best take advantage of the opportunities they get to make those plays.
"We've got to be able to play-and-catch when those plays are there, and that's where you're really evaluated," he said. "If you talk to any defensive coach ... they call it a point-of-attack play. When you're at the point of attack, do you make the play?
"It's a little bit like that with the pass game. When we have an opportunity to make a play, when we have an opportunity to play pitch-and-catch, are we able to do that?"
The Vols are closer now than they were three weeks ago.
Moore's many titles
When Tennessee was mired in the search process that eventually ended in the hiring of Butch Jones, safety Byron Moore was the Vols' self-proclaimed interim coach, a running joke he and some of his teammates created, spread and maintained on Twitter.
The rising senior's latest work on social media is no joke, though.
Moore, with a follower count nearing 9,000, is active in interacting with recruits on Twitter in trying to expand his own resume for a potential coaching career and help the future of his football program.
"Coach Jones is always talking about in recruiting, it's all about relationships, so we want the guys that are coming here that are going to fit in with the team," Moore said last week. "Obviously I won't be here next year, but I still can help out, because when I do come back, I want to be able to watch the guys that are here that are continuing what we're going to start this year with Coach Jones. It's just all about building relationships with those guys when they come to campus.
"Most of them are staying with us. They don't even have to stay in hotels. It's already like they're part of the family, so it makes them more comfortable with their decision when they do make it."
Players typically host prospects during campus visits, but Moore is taking it to a different level. Nashville athlete Vic Wharton and Knoxville safety Todd Kelly, two Tennessee commitments, are likewise active on Twitter as well as communicating with fellow prospects. Wharton, the Vols' first 2014 pledge, has hinted at possible commitments before they've happened.
Tennessee already has six commitments for 2014 after landing five players, including Kelly and five-star tailback Jalen Hurd, in a one-week stretch earlier this month.
"Everybody's loving the energy they're bringing, the swagger Coach Jones is bringing," Moore said. "Obviously once they get to campus, the campus speaks for itself. They just look at the facilities and everything, and it already sells itself.
"Tennessee's a great place to be, so at the end of the day it just comes down how they like being around us and fitting in. For the most part, it's been positive attitudes and feedback we've been getting, and probably in the next few weeks we should see some more commitments coming out pretty soon. It should end up being a pretty good class."
Screen and roll
Based on what the Vols have shown in 11-on-11 work and drilled in individual periods through the first six practices, screens and rollouts figure to be fixtures in the 2013 offense.
While Tennessee's offensive linemen had to lose weight to adapt their conditioning to a faster tempo, the offense may require the big men to do more blocking on the perimeter in open space.
"I get to show my athleticism," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "All of us do, and it's fun running out there and cutting down corners and stuff like that. You never get the chance to hit them, but it definitely adds another dimension to our offense, and I like it."
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 ...