Tennessee preseason preview: Wide receivers

Tennessee preseason preview: Wide receivers

July 25th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Josh Malone carries as Western Carolina'sTrey Morgan approaches Saturday, September 19, 2015 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

› 4: Times Tennessee has had a 100-yard receiver in three seasons under its current coaching staff. SEC receiving leader Laquon Treadwell had six 100-yard games for Ole Miss in 2015. The Vols had two last season when Josh Malone had a 103-yard game against Kentucky and Von Pearson a 121-yard performance against South Carolina in consecutive weeks. Marquez North (vs. South Carolina in 2013) and Pig Howard (at South Carolina in 2014) had the other two.

› 7.0: The Vols ranked 10th in the SEC with a 7-yard average per pass attempt.

› 19: Receptions of 20 or more yards by Tennessee’s wide receivers last season, three of which were by Preston Williams against Western Carolina. Among Southeastern Conference teams, Tennessee recorded the fourth-fewest passing plays of 20-plus yards. The Vols’ two completions of 50 or more yards — Alabama led the SEC with 10 such plays — were Malone’s 75-yard touchdown catch from Josh Dobbs against Kentucky and the 58-yard trick-play throwback to the quarterback against Florida.

› 409: Team-leading receiving yards by Pearson in 2015. His 38 catches also led the team. Malone was third in receptions (31) and second in yards (405).

STAR POWER

No current Tennessee receiver has produced enough in Knoxville to earn star status, though there are plenty of recruiting stars among the group. Of the Vols' 10 scholarship wideouts, only two (Cody Blanc and Josh Smith) were rated less than four-star prospects.

Junior Josh Malone and sophomore Preston Williams were both five-star recruits. Sophomore Jauan Jennings and freshmen Tyler Byrd and Marquez Callaway were consensus four-star prospects. At least one recruiting service had junior college transfer Jeff George and freshmen Brandon Johnson and Latrell Williams as four-star players.

The Vols have had talented receivers in recent seasons, but injuries and inconsistency have caused the group to fall short of its potential.

PROMISING PROSPECT

Preston Williams easily was one of the most improved players in spring practices, and the talented 6-foot-4, 209-pounder will try to maintain his momentum ahead of a potential breakout season.

Despite learning he'd be eligible just days before the 2015 season started and coming off a significant knee injury from late in his senior season of high school, Williams chipped in seven catches for 158 yards as a freshman even though he missed four games with a hamstring injury.

This spring, Williams brimmed with a renewed sense of confidence and maturity, made plays every practice and even helped fill his position group's leadership void vocally on occasion. He could become the perimeter playmaker the offense desperately needs.

FRESH FACES

The play of the four freshmen wide receivers will be a major storyline of the preseason, because at least two or three of them must be ready to contribute from the jump.

The Vols return just four players who caught passes in 2015, and Jennings' availability next month is very much in question after knee surgery in April.

George got a head start on the other newcomers in the spring and showed some promise — particularly as a red-zone target with his 6-foot-6 frame and long arms — but the four summer arrivals have impressed others in the program.

Byrd seemed destined to start his career on defense, but he played receiver in high school and has the kind of quickness and elusiveness that can't be taught. Callaway, the most polished of the group, might be the most ready to contribute. Johnson has been a surprise with his catching and added size, while Williams has the kind of speed Tennessee needs.

There will be a learning curve, but the Vols feel the new crop is upgrading the position's overall athleticism and playmaking.

STRONG SUITS

There are a couple of veterans in a group with seven first- or second-year players.

Perhaps this will finally be the season it clicks for Malone, a gifted player who has had a really good summer after missing spring practice because of an offseason surgery.

Smith developed into a reliable target last season and should continue to be a dependable option.

It's also worth noting that Tennessee's receivers deserve some credit for last season's record rushing totals. The Vols have willing and well-drilled blockers on the perimeter, which is needed in an offense as run-oriented as Tennessee's.

QUESTION MARKS

The first order of business for the receivers is staying healthy after the position was decimated by nagging injuries the past two seasons.

They also need to do their part to help the passing game become consistent enough that opposing defenses have to respect it. In an offense predicated on rhythm and timing, that means crisp routes, separation from defenders and minimal drops. No group of players needs to step up more for the Vols this season than the wide receivers.

The Vols would like to identify a couple of downfield threats who can take the top off the secondary and make contested catches or home-run hitters capable of turning short catches into long plays.

They also must help the freshmen adapt quickly while not overwhelming them.