published Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Newcomers add to Vols' pass-catching options

  • photo
    Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North (8) makes a one-handed catch as South Carolina cornerback Ahmad Christian (4) defends in this October file photo.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — One position was dominated by youth, and the other was a disappointment.

With the positions of Tennessee's 14 January enrollees serving as evidence, the Volunteers' coaching staff identified wide receiver and tight end as two spots where an upgrade was needed.

In its first season with coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's system, Tennessee's passing game was erratic thanks to an inexperienced receiving corps, a lack of production at tight end and struggles at quarterback.

The Vols addressed the skill positions in their 2014 class and brought in receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson and tight ends Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf as midterm arrivals.

Tennessee's top two receivers last season in terms of production were sophomore Pig Howard and freshman Marquez North, and the next three were a redshirt freshman, a true freshman and a first-year junior college transfer.

The struggles at tight end, meanwhile, forced the Vols' staff to use the position less than they wanted, but help at that spot already has arrived on campus.

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THE CAST

Who's back: Marquez North (38 catches for 496 yards and one touchdown in 2013), Pig Howard (44 for 338 and three), Jason Croom (18 for 269 and two), Josh Smith (12 for 182 and one), Johnathon Johnson (13 for 189), Devrin Young (six for 79 and two), Jacob Carter (four for 45), Cody Blanc (one for 43), Drae Bowles and Ryan Jenkins (redshirted due to a knee injury) at receiver; and Brendan Downs (12 for 70 and two), A.J. Branisel (three for 28 and one), Woody Quinn and Alex Ellis at tight end.

Who's gone: Receiver Paul Harris transferred following his freshman season.

Who's new: Five-star receiver Josh Malone and touted junior college wideout Von Pearson enrolled in January, as did the tight end tandem of Daniel Helm, one of the nation's top prospects at the position, and Ethan Wolf.

Coming soon: Slot receiver Vic Wharton will arrive for the summer.

IN THE MIX

Though Tennessee's young receiving corps -- the Vols began last season with three players who had caught passes in a college game -- made impressive strides during 2013, there were still plenty of growing pains for Zach Azzanni's bunch. The position will be young again for the Vols, but there's already been an influx of talent and competition simply due to the arrival of Malone and Pearson. Both players will require fine-tuning, but the talent and intangibles appear to be there, which should add to the Vols' options offensively. For the returning players, particularly the talented North, it's about taking the next step in their respective development. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound North is looking to build off a strong finish to last season, when he caught 16 passes for 362 yards in a five-game stretch before an ankle injury that knocked him out of the last two games.

ONE TO WATCH

A five-star player naturally will fall into this category. The 6-3, 195-pound Malone re-energized Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class when he committed to the Vols in December, and there's a reason Azzanni is excited to get out on the practice field and begin molding Malone. "You go out and you watch him," he said on signing day, "and you're like, 'I don't know how much better he can get.' He's a good player now. I think Josh was a good player, but his ceiling is very, very high. Now I've just got to go coach him." Based on the recent history of receivers, there will be a transition period for Malone. Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, a duo who played in the NFL as rookies this season, needed a year before they became the Vols' primary targets, and North only began to come on midway through last season. Unlike those cases, Malone will go through spring practice, and with Tennessee's need for playmakers, he'll get plenty of chances.

BIGGEST QUESTION

Will the newcomers add a playmaking punch to Tennessee's offense? The Vols managed only 32 passing plays of 20-plus yards last season, the receivers and tight ends had as much to do with that as the quarterbacks. The Vols targeted upgrades at tight end early in the recruiting process, and both Helm and Wolf have generated positive buzz this offseason after the position collectively struggled blocking and catching last season. Helm is the better receiver of the two, while Helm is a sturdy 6-5, 243 pounds. Downs hasn't been the same since suffering a knee injury in August 2012, and Branisel is out with an ACL injury suffered in November, so both will get plenty of chances. In addition to Malone, Pearson demonstrated his playmaking ability against questionable competition, but there will be a transition to big-time college football. The good news for Tennessee: All four players are getting a head start on their development.

about Patrick Brown...

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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