'Freaky talented' UT Vols receivers end spring on high note

'Freaky talented' UT Vols receivers end spring on high note

April 15th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee receiver Jason Croom (18) bobbles the ball as he and D'Andre Payne go up for it during the Orange and White spring game Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee receiver Jason Croom (18) bobbles the ball...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - It's always dangerous to put too much stock in the box score of a spring game, and it's possibly even more foolish to compare one year's spring game to another.

That might not apply to the University of Tennessee, though.

The comparison of the receiving yardage stats in the Volunteers' Orange and White Game the past two springs shows a stark contrast and provides evidence as to how far the team has come at wideout in a year's time.

In 2013, the Vols' top three spring-game performers -- Devrin Young, Cody Blanc and Vincent Dallas -- combined to catch seven passes for 125 yards.

Freshman Josh Malone piled up six catches for 181 yards by himself this past Saturday.

"I think it makes a huge difference going year one to year two," quarterback Justin Worley said of the apparent passing-game improvement. "We had a bunch of freshman receivers last year. We've got a bunch of sophomore receivers this year with a couple of older guys in the mix.

"Having these older guys that have been in the system, it allows for us to install more and work on the little things more. I think that's shown throughout spring practice with the explosive plays, with one-handed catches and guys getting open. It comes with being in the system."

It also comes with good recruiting.

The Vols added Malone, a five-star prospect, and touted junior college transfer Von Pearson in January, and Marquez North and Jason Croom, who will be sophomores this season, both were rated as four-star players coming out of high school. Josh Smith battled a knee injury and dropped passes as a freshman last season, but he made some nice grabs this spring.

Though Tennessee's staff would like for some receivers beyond those five to step up when August camp arrives, it's probably accurate to call the receiving corps the Vols' most talented unit.

"I'm very confident," said North, who had five catches for 106 yards and a 50-yard score Saturday. "All of them are just freaky talented. I'm excited to see where it goes."

"Going up against them helps us out a lot," said cornerback Cam Sutton. "They're very versatile. They all bring different things to the field. Our receiver corps is built around being physical and big-bodied. It makes us a better secondary."

Tennessee was devoid of big plays in the passing game last season. The Vols finished with just 32 pass plays of 20-plus yards, which tied for 92nd nationally. Texas A&M (77), Georgia (64) and LSU (63) all were among the top 10.

While the quarterback play played a part in the low production, Tennessee relied on a group of receivers that returned only three players who caught passes in 2012. One of those was Dallas, and he left the program in October. The starting trio for the opener was North, Croom and Pig Howard, who was not with the team this spring for personal reasons.

"I said it in the offseason: We have to be able to throw a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 20-yard gain," coach Butch Jones said. "That was missing from our offense last year, and we've really helped ourselves in recruiting. Still not there yet."

In North (6-foot-4, 221), Croom (6-5, 234) and Malone (6-3, 202), the Vols have three big-bodied receivers, and they were thrown their fair share of one-on-one jump balls throughout the spring.

"It's amazing and honestly a quarterback's best friend," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "You have people like Marquez, Josh Malone and Jason Croom. You're able to throw it up with them and know they will be able to come down with it. It is huge for us, especially when we get in the red zone."

Yet it's still a relatively young group, and with that come inconsistency and mistakes.

Some of that showed in the third spring scrimmage a week before the spring game. The receivers dropped some passes, and there were a couple of miscommunications on routes. It was enough that Jones barked at the wideouts for "reading too much" and "getting too much love" about their ability.

North said Saturday's collective performance was important for the corps heading into the summer.

"We needed that a lot just for our confidence and knowing to trust our technique and our scheme going into the fall," he said.

When the season does arrive, Tennessee will need its receivers to produce as they did on Saturday.

"They definitely have a competitive edge," defensive back Justin Coleman said. "They're playmakers. They know how to go up and get the ball, and when they got the ball in their hands, their plan is to score."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.