KNOXVILLE - A Tennessee tight end has heard the same two words a handful of times during preseason practice.
Neither of them are nice, either.
"You're soft," Volunteers coach Butch Jones will bellow at his tight ends through his wireless microphone.
"We have challenged them, and they have not blinked," the coach said following Wednesday morning's practice. "They keep coming back, but again, to play winning football, we need that position to do well for us. Again, it's a standard, it's an expectation of the way we're going to play football and we're not going to compromise. We're going to keep demanding."
Brendan Downs, the only returning player at the position with any experience, is fine with Jones' approach.
"That's what I want," the junior said. "I want him to be on me, I want him to push me. It's camp, so it's difficult. That's what I want. I want to get better every day, so it's good for me."
The 6-foot-5, 248-pounder from Bristol caught three passes for 39 yards as Mychal Rivera's backup last season after dislocating his kneecap last preseason. He returned much sooner than expected, never underwent surgery and still wears a black brace on the knee, and the injury appears to have sapped some of his speed and fluidity.
"When I get going, I feel as good as I was, as good as I've ever felt," Downs said. "After practice, I'll feel a little sore. Thirteen practices in now, it's sort of sore in the evenings, but once I get going I'm fine."
Tennessee's other options at tight end are junior college transfer Woody Quinn, freshman A.J. Branisel, walk-on Alex Ellis and former defensive lineman Joseph Ayres, a McCallie product. The Vols' linebackers have pushed them around during head-to-head blocking drills, and drops have been a problem. Downs let a pass near the goal line slip through his hands on Tuesday, and it wasn't the first time that's happened this preseason.
"They want to do well," Jones said. "Now it's them understanding the why. Our whole level of physicality from that position has to improve, and I see them improving, but we need to take greater steps in moving forward."
Though Justin Worley continues to get all of the first-team reps during the open parts of practice, Jones said there's been little separation in Tennessee's quarterback competition. The Vols spent much of Wednesday morning's practice on special teams, but there was some red-zone 7-on-7 work. Nathan Peterman and freshmen Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs each received some second-team work.
Worley opened the period with an 18-yard touchdown strike to Alton "Pig" Howard in the front corner of the goal line as he scrambled to his left and threw another touchdown pass to Devrin Young. On his only rep, Ferguson threw a dart to Jacob Carter on a crossing route for a touchdown. Peterman threw two incompletions, and Dobbs misfired on his lone pass.
Jones was unhappy with Worley during a later period when freshman receiver Marquez North wasn't lined up right as he should have been and told the junior the mistake was his fault.
"They can't be mentally tired," the coach said of his quarterbacks. "You have to be thick-skinned, and you have to bring it each and every day. They're still learning the nuances of leadership and all the qualities that we come to expect from that position."
The three first-team receivers the past few days have been Howard, North and freshman Josh Smith, and Jason Croom was the fourth wideout on the field on Wednesday morning. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman is working at one of the inside receiver positions. Tennessee is rotating all of its receivers through the different positions for better flexibility.
"We're still out there competing for our positions," Croom said. "We're not sure who's going to be starting. Everybody's still working.
"The coaches push me every day. They're going to get the best out of you. They're going to do whatever they have to to get it out of you."
Coaches are challenging Croom to be more consistent, make better use of his impressive frame and finish plays.
"He brings a level of physicality, a stature, especially in the red zone," Jones said. "It's all about matchups in the throw game, so [it's] being able to do some different things in the red zone and a blocking perspective as well. He brings a lot to the table. He's work in progress right now, but Jason comes to work every day."
Butch Jones said cornerback Riyahd Jones is still undergoing evaluation with Tennessee's doctors and training staff for his lower leg injury. Freshman receiver Paul Harris (foot) and cornerback Michael Williams (shoulder) continued to miss practice. Defensive tackle Mo Couch (calf) returned to practice on Wednesday morning after missing a few days.