KNOXVILLE - At 6-foot-5 and pushing 230 pounds, Jason Croom is as impressive physically as Tennessee has in its receiving corps.
The rising third-year sophomore still is learning to play like he looks.
Croom had a solid debut season for the Volunteers in 2013, but he felt he wasn't playing up to his size on some occasions, and that's what he has targeted during spring practice.
"Every day that's what I'm thinking about," he said after Tennessee practiced Tuesday afternoon. "You'll see it on the field. Coach Z [receivers coach Zach Azzanni], he's still coaching me up and teaching me different ways, and I'm watching film myself to watch bigger receivers to see how they use their body. I can use it myself."
That video study includes two of the NFL's best wideouts in Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Chicago's Brandon Marshall, and Croom certainly would do well to emulate that pair.
The Georgia native was third among Tennessee's receivers last season with 18 catches for 269 yards, and he caught touchdown passes at Oregon and Kentucky. So far this spring, he's been on the field with the first-team offense along with rising sophomore Marquez North and junior college transfer Von Pearson in the slot.
Five-star recruit Josh Malone also joined the mix, and the two newcomers have added a competitive dynamic to the receiver group.
"We push each other every day," Croom said. "We'll talk junk, but it's just to motivate you. We're not talking nobody down. We're all there for each other. We've got a little bit more juice in the room."
Vols coach Butch Jones singled out Croom last week for having a "very, very good" offseason and now wants to see more consistency from him.
"There can be no bad days," Jones said. "Bad days in college football take you away from your dreams, goals and aspirations. Playing through the fatigue of playing the receiver position and the mental toughness, then learning the little nuances.
"Every position, it's like the tools of your trade. You have a toolbox. What's in your toolbox? What's in your game? That's your toolbox that you use. That's your craft, working your craft every single day. That's what we've been stressing to him and everyone on our football team."
Malik Foreman's 2013 season was pretty typical for a true freshman.
The cornerback from Kingsport was up and down during his first year with the Vols, but he's built off that experience and is looking to earn a starting spot this spring.
After intercepting a pass in his collegiate debut against Austin Peay, Foreman didn't make a tackle until the Alabama game in October and didn't even play in three games. By the end of the season, he was playing primarily on special teams.
"It was a little hard, but I understood the circumstances and knew what was going on, so I kind of used it as motivation to keep me going," he said. "The coaches kind of talked me through it and why I wasn't playing, so I knew what was going on and it didn't really get me frustrated."
A one-time Vanderbilt commitment, Foreman starred at Dobyns-Bennett High School, where he began his senior season as a receiver before an injury prompted a move to quarterback. He ran for 1,270 yards and 17 scores, picked off six passes on defense and returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns.
Foreman needed a year to adjust to playing corner at this level, and he believes he's settled into the position now.
"The mental game is a big part of it, but you've got to keep on pushing," he said. "You're going to get beat a couple times, but you've got to keep pushing on. You've got to have it."
On the clock
Jones made it clear last week he wants to move faster on offense and "challenge that 10-second rule" proposal that made headlines this offseason before it was eventually tabled, but he was disappointed with the slower tempo in Tuesday's practice, the Vols' first in full pads.
Tennessee is using a 20-second play clock for the offense in practice in trying to improve an increased tempo.
"As soon as that 20-second clock goes off, a horn blows," Jones explained. "Then we'll do down-ups for not maintaining the tempo. Today I thought the whole practice, I thought our whole tempo on offense and defense really slowed down. I think that was a byproduct of the pads, but again, we have to learn to work through those things."
At the Helm
Though fellow freshman tight end Ethan Wolf has run with the first-team offense early in spring, Daniel Helm was the new tight end Jones singled out for praise after Tuesday's practice.
"He made some big plays in a scrimmage situation and some team settings," said the Vols' coach, "and I thought he took great strides in moving forward."
The 6-4, 225-pounder was a consensus four-star prospect out of Glenwood High School in Illinois. The more athletic of the two new tight ends, Helm was ranked the nation's top tight end prospect by Rivals.com. He played safety and basketball in high school, too.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.