KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's young wide receivers have taken turns in leading the team in reception yards.
Jason Croom took the honors Saturday against South Alabama.
The redshirt freshman became the fifth player to lead the Volunteers receivers in yards when he caught three passes for 50 yards, a high for his young career.
"I thought Jason Croom played the best that he's played since we had been here," coach Butch Jones said Monday. "He made some difficult catches. He played physical. He blocked on the perimeter. We challenged him this week.
"That's one thing about [receivers] coach [Zach] Azzanni: He has the reputation around the country that he's going to get the most out of his players, and he challenges them every day."
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Croom took a quick flare pass for an 11-yard gain in the first half, hauled in a 17-yard grab on a slant pattern on Tennessee's opening drive of the second half and caught a 22-yard pass on a seam route to convert a third down to a first in the fourth quarter.
Croom, who played in three games last season before taking a medical redshirt following shoulder surgery, caught his first career touchdown pass at Oregon.
"You look at Jason," Jones said. "I thought he played his best football."
As Tennessee ran out the final seconds of Saturday's win, left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson became visibly heated after it appeared some Jaguars players started jawing with him. Richardson's teammates had to hold the 6-6, 327-pounder back, and Jones grabbed him and yelled at him.
Escorted by graduate assistant and former Vols offensive lineman Anthony Parker, Richardson was the first player to Tennessee's locker room, and hours later he vented some frustration aimed at some critical fans on Twitter.
"'Hey O line y'all rushed for 300 yds but y'all [stink]' lol. It's great to be a vol man," Richardson tweeted.
Tennessee ran for 278 yards against South Alabama, and Jones noted it was the third time this season the Vols ran for more than 200 yards, something they did only three times during the previous three seasons.
"We challenged our offensive line, that we needed to run the football," Jones said. "It's more running it probably more at a consistent basis, but they're also very prideful. I think it was more he was very proud of what they accomplished. He meant no harm by it."
Jones said he watches every one of his players' Twitter accounts, and he called Richardson right after the tweet was posted.
"He was laughing and goes, 'Coach, I'm just proud of my teammates.' ... I love Tiny, and he loves this football program," the coach said.
On a couple of occasions Saturday, the sparse Neyland Stadium crowd aimed some groans and boos toward Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley.
"I didn't even really hear it when I was on the field," center James Stone said. "I didn't know about it until after the game. I support Justin to the fullest, so I'm always going to have his back, and I know the offensive line, we're always going to have Justin's back. We have confidence in him."
Jones again stressed Tennessee's need to avoid turnovers, and he was clearly disappointed by Worley's three interceptions Saturday, though he said the third one was the result of a missed cut block.
"I know he played some games a couple of years ago, but he had a year off, and those are all growing pains you go through with a quarterback," Jones said. "Believe me, there's a great sense of urgency we have to get those mistakes corrected, but it's not just on Justin Worley. We have to do a better job of coaching him and our players around him.
"He's just one of 11, but obviously all eyes point to him."
The criticism is the same way.
"When something bad happens, it falls on all of us," Stone said. "When you see your quarterback take the brunt like that, it hurts you as an offense. We're all trying to eat together."
Jones said tailback Marlin Lane, who left Saturday's game in the first half with what the coach called a "lower extremity injury," did not practice Monday and will be day-to-day this week.
With the junior sidelined against South Alabama, Rajion Neal carried a larger load, totaling 28 touches for 183 yards, and sophomore Tom Smith, who ran for 27 yards on three carries Saturday, would be next in line to spell Neal.
The senior, Jones said, ran aggressively and decisively and played "at another gear" by showing good burst and acceleration and making tacklers miss.
"When we needed him," the coach said, "he stepped it up and he played his best game to date."
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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