IF YOU GO
What: Tennessee's open football practice
Where: Neyland Stadium in Knoxville
When: Tonight at 7. Stadium gates will open at 6 p.m., and both admission and parking are free.
Who, why and how: The Vols will blend some live 1-on-1 matchups with situational 11-on-11 work as they continue their preseason preparations.
KNOXVILLE — Josh Malone is going to be OK.
Tennessee's freshman receiver just needed one good day on the field, and the former five-star recruit got exactly that in the Volunteers' scrimmage Wednesday night at Neyland Stadium.
The 6-foot-3, 202-pounder from Gallatin glided around Haslam Field so smoothly during spring practice earlier this year that observers forgot he was supposed to be still in high school, but Malone clearly appeared to be laboring through most of Tennessee's preseason training camp.
The dropped passes and assortment of folks hollering at him, including head coach Butch Jones, receivers coach Zach Azzanni and even quarterback Justin Worley, provided evidence of that.
"It was a little bit tougher than I expected going in," Malone said Thursday, "but I've just got to keep fighting it. That's what I've been trying to do, and finally I had a good scrimmage. That was something I needed."
That sentiment was echoed by Malone's coaches and teammates most of Thursday. The Mr. Football award winner out of Station Camp High School stuck in the first-team offense most of spring practice, but it didn't take long for Josh Smith to usurp Malone's spot this month.
Smith has had much to do with that, but Malone wasn't looking like himself.
"He's battled through some things," Azzanni said. "Receivers get stepped on their fingers, jam a finger, things like that -- they all go through that. Now which ones can kind of put it aside when the ball's in the air, that's different. He was letting it bother him, some little nicks and bruises. It's football, it's training camp.
"[Wednesday] night he came out and really made a point that, 'All right, I'm going to come out and be who I am.'"
Malone had just finished a senior season in which he caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns when he committed to Tennessee in early December and joined the Vols a month later.
Enrolling early, he said, allowed him to become more comfortable in Tennessee's offense and add some muscle to his lanky frame, and he flashed his talent in the Orange and White game with a six-reception, 181-yard performance that included touchdown catches of 49, 6 and 79 yards.
When Malone wasn't resembling that player this month, his teammates took notice.
"He's kind of been down on himself, and he beats himself up hard," Worley said. "Coach Jones has been on us quarterbacks to go encourage him [because] he needs a little bit of a pick-me-up. For him to go out and have some big catches and some long-yardage plays, it should help his confidence going into the next couple of weeks and into the season."
Marquez North was in Malone's shoes a year ago, a talented freshman receiver having to learn quickly for a Tennessee offense in serious need of playmakers.
"It's just freshman struggles a little bit," North said. "From a mental standpoint, you've got to fight through all that. The grind does get real in training camp, and you've got to treat your body right as well as be up top mentally."
In one drive in particular, Malone showed he could fight through pain and fatigue.
The Vols had a 14- or 15-play, 98-yard drive in Wednesday night's scrimmage, and Azzanni left Malone on the field for the entirety of it.
"I could tell he was leaving me in there to test me," Malone said, "just to see where I was at conditioning-wise and to see how many plays I could handle in one drive."
Azzanni was happy with the test results.
"I made a point to keep him in there the entire time," he explained, "because I needed to see him push. That's my job. I'm good with Alton Howard [going] four or five plays. Marquez, come out, I'll rotate you. But I needed to see how much those young guys can push, and he went all the way down.
"I think he had one loaf (Azzanni keeps a clicker in his pocket to track them in practice) in the 15 plays, and I was being picky, to be honest. He pushed through and grew up a little bit last night. Now he's got to take the next step next scrimmage. He can't go backwards."
After struggling to start the preseason, Malone should get back on track following his positive performance.
"I'm real glad he had one," North said, "just from a confidence standpoint, just something to build on and something to learn from."
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 ...