Tennessee Vols' receivers working on artistry

photo Tennessee wide receiver Jason Croom lines up during practice.
photo Tennessee receiver Alton "Pig" Howard started out preseason camp "like gangbusters," according to his position coach, but has had some lackluster practices recently.

KNOXVILLE -- For Tennessee's wide receivers, a well-executed passing game would resemble a work of art.

The Volunteers' most inexperienced unit has sketched all summer and throughout preseason practice, and the players will trade a pencil for a permanent marker Saturday night.

The wideouts have caught passes from four quarterbacks for most of the past few months, and the timing of a passing offense filled with new parts will be tested in the season opener.

"When you run your routes, you're painting pictures for the quarterback," redshirt freshman receiver Jason Croom said following Tuesday afternoon's practice. "The quarterback, if there were cones out there, that's how he should be able to treat our routes. He expects us to be in the right place when he throws the ball."

For full disclosure, the Vols typically do lay from three to four orange cones on the Haslam Field grass to outline routes when the receivers and quarterbacks throw on air in practice.

Against Austin Peay in three days, the cones will be replaced by defenders, and a phase of the game that's still developing will encounter its first checkpoint.

"Every now and then you're going to have dilemmas on the football field with the quarterbacks and receivers," said sophomore Pig Howard, "but I'd say we've made a good improvement as far as route-running, getting your depth, timing and getting out of your breaks. I'd say we've got it down pat, [but] there's a little more room to improve."

Based on practices, Tennessee's passing offense features a lot of short and intermediate routes predicated on precision, and the coaching staff thus has tried to drill the small details into the minds and bodies of the receivers.

Take this example from Tuesday's practice. Given a certain coverage, receivers coach Zach Azzanni asked Howard what route he needed to run. When Howard began his slant route two steps too soon, coaches pointed it out.

"It's a lot of timing," Howard said. "It's about getting your depth, your splits, knowing what route you're going to run. Basically it starts with lining up.

"If your alignment is wrong, that's going to mess up the timing, so that's the most important thing."

Head coach Butch Jones said Monday the coaches have been slowed in their installation of the offense by some of the youth at receiver and the inexperience of the four battling quarterbacks. The Vols have tried to master some aspects before moving on to others.

One seemingly simple route has to be practiced against four or five different defensive looks, so the coaches have focused on mastering the technique and the fundamentals with a young corps.

"It's timing, it's rhythm, it's execution," Jones said Tuesday. "Dropped passes are the equivalent of a turnover. It's being first up off the pile. It's owning your conditioning. It's having that mental toughness, that mental conditioning.

"We're work in progress, and I'll know a lot more where we're at late Saturday evening."

Croom said the Vols put in a lot work on the timing and precision over the course of the summer and have improved there, but the opener will offer a litmus test of the unit's progress.

"We're very comfortable," Howard said. "Every now and then we have some mistakes, but we've come a long way and we're getting better. I just think the way we are as a group and as a unit, we've got a lot of things we can do to help this football team."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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