KNOXVILLE - When Pig Howard traded his shoulder pads and helmet for a set of warmups before Tennessee's game at Oregon nearly two weeks ago, the Volunteers had to scrap half their game plan, Butch Jones would say two days later.
It turns out Tennessee's coach wasn't really exaggerating.
While Howard's absence was compounded by a previous injury to Devrin Young and the one Johnathon Johnson suffered in practice that same week, the Vols missed their top option at the important slot receiver position.
The sophomore returned from a tweaked hamstring last week at Florida and caught four passes for 75 yards and Tennessee's only offensive touchdown.
"We're used to the slot catching over a hundred passes in this offense," Vols receiver coach Zach Azzanni said. "Anything less than that will be a disappointment for sure, but he's very valuable. He's also a different skill set than those other guys."
The gold standard for the slot receiver position in the offense Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian brought with them to Tennessee from Central Michigan and Cincinnati was Antonio Brown, a 2011 Pro Bowl selection who's in his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his three seasons at Central Michigan (2007-09), the 5-foot-10, 186-pound former walk-on caught 102, 93 and 110 passes and finished his career with 3,199 receiving yards and 22 touchdown catches.
Anthony McClung combined to catch 83 passes for 1,222 yards and eight touchdowns for Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012. D.J. Woods had 57 receptions for 898 yards and eight scores in 2010.
The 5-8, 185-pound Howard has eight catches in three games this season, and he and freshman Marquez North sharE team-high honors with 112 receiving yards apiece.
Azzanni said it was "rough" the way the injuries piled up, and the timing did the Vols little favor, too.
"Pig is an important part of this offense," Bajakian said. "I think the timing of the injury was as much a factor as anything. He was literally injured in the last period of practice on Tuesday, so he got all the reps on Tuesday.
"Our backup [Johnson] got the other reps; then our backup got injured more than halfway through the middle of practice on Wednesday. Don't get me wrong, Pig is very important in what we're doing. We game-plan a lot of ways to get him the football, but I think it's also the timing of the injuries that resulted in the circumstances."
Azzanni said he challenged Howard this week and conceded that the former four-star prospect from Orlando's Edgewater High School is still in the development process.
"I think he's got a ton of upside to him still," Azzanni said. "I still think he's learning how to be a big-time player. That's my job. He still doesn't have great habits yet. I'm still working on those with him as far as how to be and how to study the game, how to take of his body and how to come out here every day.
"He still hasn't learned that. He's still up and down every day, and that's my job, to keep pushing him, keep chopping, and hopefully we can come out the other end. He can be an Antonio Brown, he could be a Jared Abbrederis [who Azzanni coached at Wisconsin last year] -- he could be one of those guys one of these days. That's up to him."
Though he didn't register a catch or carry until the season's fourth game following preseason foot surgery, Howard ran the ball more times (14) than he caught it (13) as a freshman in a 2012 offense that was loaded at receiver, and he even threw a touchdown pass at South Carolina out of the wildcat formation.
Howard has run four times this season on reverses and speed sweeps, and he ran for a 20-yard gain against Western Kentucky and turned a sure loss on what was supposed to be a double reverse into a 7-yard gain against Florida last week.
However, he's still coming into his own as a receiver.
"He's a great asset to our offense," quarterback Justin Worley said. "He brings an explosive player, a guy that can turn a bubble screen into a 60-yard touchdown. Having him in the slot, it just provides a sure hand for us out wide.
"I have a lot of faith and a lot of comfort in what Pig's doing and where he's going to be."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.