KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee football Volunteers practiced Tuesday without receivers Jacob Carter (sprained right ankle), Paul Harris (hamstring) and Vincent Dallas, which made a thin group that does the most running during practice of any position group even shorter on bodies.
"It just took people stepping up," said Jason Croom, who made a leaping grab on a fade route in the end zone over cornerback Daniel Gray when the Vols suddenly stopped their stretching period to run a two-point-conversion play. "Walk-ons had to fill in spots for people that were out due to injuries. I felt like they did all right, but there were a couple mistakes we all made."
Some of the mistakes the receivers made in Saturday's scrimmage were more damaging, and coach Butch Jones turned his answer toward some dropped passes when asked to re-evaluate the scrimmage performances of quarterbacks Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman.
"I can see them progressing," Jones said. "I think our quarterbacks are getting better. There's so many things that I think the naked eye, when you watch a scrimmage, all eyes are on the quarterback, but a lot of times what people don't see is a missed assignment by a receiver, a receiver not winning at the line of scrimmage, not beating our one-on-ones, maybe a missed assignment up front in the line of scrimmage by the offensive line.
"We had five dropped passes, and a dropped pass in our offense is equivalent to a turnover in our offense, and those five dropped passes were big-time drops. Receivers speak through nonverbal communication of when they're coming out of their breaks, and that's formed over repetitions and time. Right now that's been a great challenge for all of our quarterbacks."
Jones said he's "very concerned" about his situation at punt returner and added that Carter has shown the most consistency in the role.
"I think that's the hardest skill in sport and football," Jones said, "not only to catch a punt, but you have 10 guys running down the field to try to tackle you, and so much goes into it. That's a skill set that you have to do more than two things at once, and it really challenges your concentration levels. We're looking for the individual who can gain one first down for the offense, get 10 yards but also secure the football.
"So much of catching punts and the special-teams game is based on hidden yardage. A misjudged punt can be the difference in 10, 20 or 30 yards of field position. ... Today, we spent 10 minutes just trying to figure out and trying to continue to evaluate who our punt returners are going to be, and I couldn't tell you right now. Thank God we don't have to play a game tomorrow."
The coaching staff has challenged linebacker A.J. Johnson, the SEC's leading tackler last season, to amp up his game this spring. "In about the last week," Jones said, "I've seen him really respond, not only on the field, but off the field in the intangibles and the leadership we expect from our linebackers."... Tailback Tom Smith and defensive tackle Allan Carson returned to practice. Safety Geraldo Orta did not practice, and redshirt freshman Tino Thomas filled his second-team spot. ... Jones said Peterman, who's done most of his plays with the second-team offense, mixed in with the first-team offense a little in Tuesday's practice.