KNOXVILLE — The disbelief was evident on Josh Smith's face.
With Tennessee trying to swing momentum back in its direction after Missouri took a 17-0 lead in Columbia last week, the Volunteers' freshman receiver let an easy catch thrown perfectly by quarterback Josh Dobbs go right through his hands.
The 6-foot-2, 193-pounder from Knoxville has struggled with drops this season, and the latest one may have been the biggest.
"I think he just has to continue to progress," Vols coach Butch Jones said Monday. "I think he's going through the maturation phase of a true freshman. He's extremely competitive. Josh, I'll tell you right now, has the best hands on our football team.
"He's extremely competitive. He brings it every day in practice. He's extremely difficult and hard on himself, which we want. That's the mark of a great competitor. Now it's taking the practice field to the game field. He's a young man with a tremendous amount of upside, and he'll be fine."
Smith made three key catches against Western Kentucky in his second collegiate game, hauled in a 51-yard catch on Tennessee's first-quarter touchdown drive at Oregon and caught his first career touchdown pass against South Alabama.
Since his 26-yard grab on third down of the Vols' late go-ahead touchdown drive against Georgia, Smith missed the South Carolina game with a hamstring injury and made 9-yard catches against both Alabama and Missouri.
"He's trying to make a play and he doesn't catch the ball with his eyes," Jones said. "He tries to run before he catches the football. Unfortunately those are all growing pains that we're going through with all of our players and not just Josh, but a lot of true freshmen.
"It just so happened that his mistake was magnified because he was in the open field and it was a touchdown."
Berry twins pick Vols
Elliott and Evan Berry, sons of former Vols defensive back James and brothers of former Tennessee star Eric, went public Monday morning with their commitment to Tennessee.
Neither twin will come to Tennessee with the same billing as Eric did in 2007, but both are solid prospects. Evan is a 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback who's rated as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com. The 6-foot, 200-pound Elliott is a three-star prospect who likely will play safety in college.
With the additions of the Berrys, four-star junior college receiver LaVon Pearson and four-star defensive end Dewayne Hendrix in the past three weeks, the Vols now have added seven commitments during a season in which they're 4-5 with three losses by 28 or more points.
With Kameel Jackson, the former Oklahoma receiver who's not been with his Blinn College team for more than a month, unlikely to end up at Tennessee, the Vols' 2014 class is up to 29 commitments. Tennessee can sign 30 in February.
Two of the biggest mistakes Dobbs made in his first start were a second-quarter fumble near Missouri's 30-yard line and a third-quarter throw into double coverage that was intercepted.
"I think he takes a lot of things from it," Jones said. "As cerebral as he is, just like we as coaches [do], he dissects every single play. Some really good experiences, and some experiences that we need to correct and move forward and not make them twice, which he will."
Jones said Dobbs should have run out of bounds on his fumble, needed to thrown the ball away on his first-down pickoff and left some yards out there by not keeping the ball on some of the zone-read option plays.
"Those are all little things that you can rep in practice and replicate it in game-like situations," the coach said, "but when they're live reps, you grow up and you learn from it.
"I think the experiences that he gained obviously should continue to move him forward."
Marlin Lane was the more effective tailback for Tennessee against Missouri. The junior ran for 37 yards on six carries while Rajion Neal managed 8 yards on eight carries. In the three games since Lane returned from injury, Neal has 45 carries to Lane's 24.
"You'll see his role continue to increase," Jones said of Lane. "Now he's back to 100 percent health-wise. The thing we need from him is burst at the second level and finishing runs.
"You'll see his workload start to increase a little bit this week."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman (hand) will be "full go" in practice this week, though Jones declined to name him Dobbs' backup ahead of Riley Ferguson, who still can redshirt this season. ... The late-week onset of some severe back spasms had the Vols worrying if kicker Michael Palardy would be available against Missouri. ... Jones on Tennessee's brutal schedule: "It takes its toll, but it's a learning process."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...