KNOXVILLE - Watch Tennessee's wide receivers in any practice drill, and you'll probably hear Jacob Carter's voice.
As a fourth-year junior, the former walk-on with eight career catches is the old guy of the Volunteers’ most inexperienced unit.
Naturally, Carter is trying to shout tips, encouragement or corrections to the group.
“Coach Z [receivers coach Zach Azzanni] preaches that a lot,” he said after Monday’s practice. “He wants the older guys to coach the younger guys. We kind of know how we’re feeling. Coach Z doesn’t always know how we’re feeling, so we try to help the younger guys out and try to coach them up a little bit.”
Carter, junior Vincent Dallas and sophomore Pig Howard represent the Vols’ only returning production at receiver, and a trio of freshmen — Marquez North, Josh Smith and Ryan Jenkins — already have created some buzz and received some first-team work early in training camp.
The receivers can sense the opportunity in front of them, and collectively they’re trying to build off a summer of hard work following a spring practice of inconsistency and injuries. Carter missed the second half of spring ball with a foot injury, and Dallas, Jason Croom, Paul Harris also ended spring on the shelf.
Carter said the receivers had a “pretty good summer.” They worked to build chemistry with the competing quarterbacks and spent more time together off the field. That was a change from the spring, when, Carter said, “we were just kind of hit in the face with everything.”
Even though younger players are aiming to take the same opportunity he’s chasing, Carter isn’t being selfish.
“You’re trying to get everybody better, because it’s not about self-promotion,” he said. “It’s just getting better. You kind of want to get yourself better and get the other players better, so as a team we’ll be better. You don’t want to put anybody else down for you to get up, so we all try to help each other.
“We understand it’s competitive, but we still try to help each other out.”
Butch Jones often deviates from the planned practice schedule, but the Vols’ first-year head coach made a calculated move in putting an 11-on-11 team period immediately after the players stretched early in practice.
“I tried to really study our football team and where they’re going to be,” he said. “They’re going through a grind right now. … Our practices are demanding. I kind of knew we needed to do something to jumpstart them and get their competitive energy and competitive juices going.”
Tailbacks Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane found some running lanes, and Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman completed passes to freshman receivers Smith and Jenkins on rollouts. Jones was active on his microphone, telling first-year tight ends Woody Quinn and A.J. Branisel, “You’re soft,” and calling out receiver Devrin Young and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers.
“I think it was good,” Peterman said. “I think it’s pretty exciting to get started playing football. Guys might not have been as limber or as loose, but I think we started to loosen up and we started to get some good competition going.”
Rookie quarterbacks Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs each had some difficulty during that early team period.
Jones stopped to lecture Ferguson after he threw an interception right to safety Tino Thomas on a rollout play when there was no open receiver, and Dobbs appeared to struggle getting plays communicated to the offense, prompting Jones to bark, “Come on, Dobbs, take command of the offense,” over the microphone.
Jones said he saw both freshmen respond from the early errors.
“We’ve really tried to throw a lot at them to see how they would handle the pressure,” he said. “They have great command — they have great command presence — and they have great problem-solving skills. The game’s moving fast and all that, but I’ve been encouraged by both quarterbacks.
“I like them both by what I’ve seen, but now they have to start to minimize the mental mistakes. They’re great on the board, but now it’s taking the classroom, the functional intelligence, to the field and making quick-snap decisions. The big thing with all of our quarterbacks is taking care of the football and managing the offense.”
With LaDarrell McNeil and Byron Moore, who are battling for a starting spot at safety, limited to side workouts Monday with minor hamstring injuries, walk-on Max Arnold, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game, received some first-team reps alongside Brian Randolph, and freshmen Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Lemond Johnson worked with the second group.