'Ultra-talented' Pearson already making plays for UT Vols

'Ultra-talented' Pearson already making plays for UT Vols

March 14th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Von Pearson with receivers coach Zach Azzanni during 2014 spring practice.

Tennessee's Von Pearson with receivers coach Zach Azzanni...

KNOXVILLE - With his left hand, Von Pearson helped shield his body from Malik Foreman as he turned to catch a back-shoulder throw along the edge of the end zone.

With his right hand, Tennessee's receiver snagged the ball thrown by quarterback Riley Ferguson.

The Volunteers' offense then proceeded to mob the junior college transfer, who has generated a palpable buzz after just four spring practices with his playmaking ability.

"He's been a little inconsistent only because he doesn't know what he's doing yet," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said after Tennessee concluded Thursday's practice, in which Pearson made another highlight-reel play.

"The game is still fast for him, but he's ultra-talented. There's no doubt it. He makes acrobatic catches just like he did at Feather River. He's made a couple here in the last couple of days."

In his first Tennessee practice, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Pearson took a similar back-shoulder throw from Ferguson, juked Cam Sutton -- a Freshman All-SEC selection at cornerback last season -- and raced the distance.

The first four spring practices are a long, long way from the gauntlet of the Southeastern Conference, but Pearson already is making noise.

"Von's very, very, very talented," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "And we're throwing a lot at him early. He's done a good job of making plays. Again, I think the receiver corps in general has really stepped up this spring.

"Marquez North has done a really good job of going up and outjumping defensive backs and making diving catches. Von also has done a good job with the ball in his hands. Josh Malone has flashed at times. Jason Croom is really coming on. The group as a whole has improved tremendously.

"Von, as a new player, he's just got to grasp the offense, the X's and O's and all that we're throwing at him mentally."

Pearson took a roundabout route to Tennessee. He graduated from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va., but was a nonqualifier academically coming out in 2010. Pearson ended up across the country at Feather River College in California, a little more than 80 miles from the Nevada border.

In 2012, he caught 39 passes for 757 yards and 10 touchdowns, but his senior season featured gaudy numbers -- 93 catches, 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns -- and an impressive highlight video.

The Vols were in on Pearson early in the recruiting process, and Bajakian said the player was genuinely surprised when Tennessee offered him a scholarship to come play in the SEC and was moved to tears by what he saw on his official visit to Knoxville last October.

Pearson, who turns 23 in June, was rated as one of the nation's top juco receivers in the 2014 class, but his arrival more or less played second fiddle to that of five-star freshman Malone, the other wideout Tennessee brought in early.

"Von has endless energy," Azzanni said. "He'll tap me on the butt when I'm yelling at him, and I love that. We've got to remember he's three years older than Josh. Josh is still a puppy, so he's going to make some mistakes. He's hard on himself, because they're competitors, but they're doing great, they're fun to coach and I'm excited about them."

Such a style can be rare for junior college players, who typically had it easier at their in-between program and face an adjustment when they get to the big-time college program.

Cordarrelle Patterson, another recent juco receiver the Vols landed who dazzled during his one season in 2012 on the way to the NFL, also was a bit of a character and had his own level of flair.

Johnathon Johnson, whom the Vols added out of Blinn College in Texas last summer, and Pearson both appear to fit a similar mold in terms of personality.

"That's just his personality," Azzanni said. "It depends on the kid. Johnathon Johnson's a lot of the same way. He doesn't have that boundless energy like Von does. I'm not sure Von has an off switch, which is good. He doesn't have a bad day. He's a glass-half-full-all-the-time kid, and we like to be around that. Johnathon is about that way as well. They're all different."

Azzanni admitted that Pearson is "not very polished" as a receiver, and it's a long way between now and his debut against Utah State in late August, but the dreadlocked receiver already has made a significant impression on Tennessee's coaches.

"That's going to take some work," Azzanni said, "but I knew that. He's raw. He's gifted. He's athletic. He picks it up pretty fast. He's got a long way to go as far as how to be a true receiver, but it's fun to coach him because he can pick it up pretty quick."

And because he can make plays like the one he made Thursday.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com