Zach Azzanni steps into big job as UT receivers coach

Zach Azzanni steps into big job as UT receivers coach

January 11th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

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KNOXVILLE - The Rose Bowl loss and ensuing cold-weather car troubles are in the past for Zach Azzanni.

Tennessee's new receivers coach has a much more daunting obstacle ahead of him now.

The early departures of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft and the graduation of Zach Rogers leave the Volunteers with a massive production void, and Azzanni is left with a corps of unproven and unused players.

"There's a good foundation in there, I think," he said during his first media appearance Thursday, a week removed from joining Tennessee's staff after helping coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. "There's some young guys who are hungry. We don't have enough of them, and that's why we're on the road grinding right now recruiting.

"There's no doubt it's pretty depleted. I met with all the kids, and they're hungry for a change. For me, it's good [because] I get to come in with a blank canvas."

The Vols lose 80 percent of their yards and 70 percent of their receptions from 2012. Tailback Marlin Lane (228 yards on 29 catches) is Tennessee's leading returning receiver. Rising junior Vincent Dallas, former walk-on Jacob Carter and sophomore-to-be Alton "Pig" Howard -- a trio who combined to catch 30 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns in 2012 -- are the only receivers on the roster who enter next season with previous production.

Azzanni expected the situation to be what it is, and new head coach Butch Jones expressed concern over the number shortage at receiver in December. Jones wants a certain number of players at each position, but Tennessee is short of the dozen-player standard at receiver. In addition to the aforementioned trio, the Vols will have rising sophomore Cody Blanc, redshirted freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom and early enrollee Paul Harris available for spring practice.

"They all have a clean slate," Azzanni said. "They all have an opportunity day one. Walk-on, scholarship, third-year, fourth-year -- it doesn't matter. We're going to put the best guys out there."

The 36-year-old Azzanni coached in three programs the past three seasons after a three-year stint under Jones at Central Michigan. He's spent two stints at Bowling Green and Florida -- which he referred to as "that other place" when he recalled recruiting Dallas for the Gators in 2010 -- under Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. A year after serving as Western Kentucky's offensive coordinator, Azzanni coached at Wisconsin this season.

When he returned from the Rose Bowl, it was 6 degrees and Azzanni's car wouldn't start in the airport parking garage. The father of three daughters was on a plane to Knoxville the following morning and on the road recruiting for Tennessee the day after that. Like the rest of Jones' staff, he's jumped headfirst into recruiting with signing day only 26 days away.

Azzanni believes the three years he spent with Jones at Central Michigan, where he held the title of assistant head coach, were important in earning the recruiting coordinator role at Tennessee.

"One of the keys is I know what Coach Jones likes," he said. "That's why I'm the recruiting coordinator. We have a lot of similar tastes, pet peeves and things like that and what we think kids these days like. We all understand that it can be anything that makes or breaks a kid's decision.

"It could be the way that a professor talks to them [or] the lights weren't on in the indoor [facility]. It could be anything like that might make or break a kid int recruiting, and I think I understand what Coach Jones wants and what this staff wants, so I'm going to do my best."

Tennessee boasts a long list of talented former receivers, and Azzanni spoke highly of his meeting in Nashville with Joey Kent, who became the program's career leader in catches, yards and touchdowns from 1993 to 1996, when Jones hosted more than 70 former players to watch Monday night's BCS championship game.

After the departure of three other productive receivers, Azzanni and the Vols face the challenge of continuing the trend.

"Obviously we want speed. Who doesn't want speed, right? That's a given," he said. "After 15 years of doing this, I want personality, I want guys that have different personalities and bring a little bit different edge to the field. I don't need a 6-foot-5 guy, and I don't need a 5-foot-8 guy. I need a mix of both.

"They should be knocking at our door, quite honestly. We need to get that back here. Playing that position here is a big deal."