KNOXVILLE — The payoff for the performance was a loss.
It was still rewarding to some degree, though, for Zach Azzanni.
Tennessee's receivers coach saw his young group of wideouts turn in perhaps their best collective performance of the season in the overtime loss to Georgia last week, and Azzanni hopes the Volunteers can continue to build from it.
"It was big-time, and I think as a group, they understand maybe why I'm so hard on them and why we train the way we do and have the habits we do, because it showed up when we needed to," he told the Times Free Press after Tennessee wrapped up its open-date practices Wednesday at Neyland Stadium.
"We do a lot of hard stuff, I ask a lot of them, I have high standards and at first they couldn't understand why. It's kind of situational revelation: You put your hand in the stove even though I tell you it's not hot. It's hot, and they had to put their hand in the stove to find that out, and finally we made some plays.
"The positive thing about it, the silver lining, is we made a lot of mistakes, and we still made some plays to make up for those mistakes, and we weren't doing that before. Great teams make up for mistakes because they go make some big plays. You never play a perfect game, and they came out and made up for some mistakes with some big plays. We hadn't done that yet, so it was nice to see."
Despite dropping a would-be big gain, Marquez North made a toe-tapping touchdown catch. Josh Smith made an excellent grab with a defender draped all over him on the Vols' go-ahead fourth-quarter scoring drive. Jason Croom twice caught passes for first downs on nearly identical third-down plays in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Those are two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.
"I think they definitely stepped up and made some plays where we might have not had them in the past," quarterback Justin Worley said. "I don't think it's something that's just come out of nowhere, though. They've had the capability, and frankly we just went out and executed a little bit better.
"I think it helps a ton. Just going out there and having some success will help you continue to grow in your confidence levels. Them going out there, and each and every one that played did a great job, so I think especially with them being so young, just having a good game like that will help."
Coaching this group has tested Azzanni's patience. He was visibly frustrated by the inconsistency and the injuries during spring practice. He joked during preseason camp that coaching this bunch would age him 10 years, but he was upbeat and willing to accept the coming highs and lows.
Azzanni, who's coached receivers at Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Florida, Western Kentucky and Wisconsin, has tweaked his coaching style throughout the course of the season and adapted it to his young wideouts.
"I think good coaches feel it. There's a method to my madness," he said. "I've been doing this a long time: 15 years. I know when to push, when to pull, and the fact of the matter is we had a bunch of young kids who had no idea the intensity of an SEC football game, and going and patting them on the butt every day and telling them they're doing a great job when I know they're not probably wasn't going to get them ready.
"All of the sudden you start to see some improvement, and then you show them improvement from spring all the way through now and their eyes kind of get like saucers. Then you can start being a little bit more positive and a quieter coach. Shoot, when these guys are juniors, I'll just be standing out here, hopefully."
Worley has an outside perspective on the dynamic between Azzanni and his players.
"He might be the hardest one on them, and they respect him regardless of how he coaches and things like that," the quarterback said. "I think his coaching style has changed a little bit throughout the season, going from, 'We're doing this wrong,' to, 'All right, how can we do this better?'
"I think he's done a great job of developing those guys and getting them on the same page."
Croom said Azzanni "don't take too kindly" to losing, and Tennessee's receivers aren't even allowed to say that word, which may explain why Azzanni won't let his wideouts think they've turned a corner.
"We lost the game. We made some mistakes," he said. "I'm glad everyone's all happy. That's all good. I'm not real happy. We lost the game, and that one hurt, and we had some plays in that game where we could have made up and maybe won that game by two touchdowns.
"I point those out, too, because we're going to run into that same situation here whether it's this year or next year, and next time they're going to go, 'OK, we've been here before, and we can't make these little mistakes in a big-time game like this.'"
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...