UT Vols' Marquez North picturing sophomore success

UT Vols' Marquez North picturing sophomore success

April 9th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North (8) makes a one-handed catch as he's defended by South Carolina cornerback Ahmad Christian (4) late the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Knoxville.

Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North (8) makes a...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - The picture encapsulates perhaps the most important moment of Tennessee's 2013 football season.

With a South Carolina defensive back draped all over him, Volunteers freshman receiver Marquez North somehow has the ball pinned with his left hand, or perhaps just a couple of fingertips, to his shoulder.

The 39-yard catch late in the fourth quarter against the Gamecocks set up the eventual winning field goal in what was Tennessee's first defeat of a ranked team since 2009.

The moment is captured by a photo that sits in North's family home in North Carolina, and there's a larger version of it in Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni's house, along with a number of pictures from other momentous catches and plays.

While North said after Saturday's scrimmage he sees pictures of the catch "all the time," he said he hasn't watched the replay of it that often, though Azzanni begged to differ following Tennessee's practice Tuesday.

"It's on every highlight film we show in this place," he quipped.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound North, a starter essentially the day he stepped on campus last summer, probably is too busy focusing on his game to stop and appreciate any of the big moments from his first college season.

"I feel like I'm getting better," he said earlier this spring. "I've just got to get the fundamentals down. Getting in and out of cuts, that's the biggest thing. I feel like my potential is high."

That was apparent even in high school, when North averaged more than 15 yards per carry and 16 yards per catch while scoring 25 touchdowns for Mallard Creek in Charlotte. He was the highest-rated recruit in Tennessee's 2013 signing class and began his college career with high expectations. That was what he expected, though.

"I took it by the horns and opened my mind up to it," he said. "It was real fun, though. I'm open to a lot of challenges."

He finished his first season with the Vols with 38 catches for 496 yards and one touchdown, a toe-tapping grab along the boundary of the end zone against Georgia. It was the third-most receiving yards by a Tennessee freshman receiver, behind only Kelley Washington (1,010 in 2001) and Stanley Morgan (511 in 1973).

At the end of the regular season, Azzanni said he couldn't wait to see North take the next step in his development the following spring.

It has not happened exactly how the coach envisioned, but he's hardly down on his protege.

"I did early on," Azzanni said Tuesday. "I think he hit a little bit of a wall for whatever reason this last week and hasn't improved the way that I've wanted him to improve, but I'll tell you what, he's a conscientious kid. He'll get it right. He's having a little lull right now, but he'll get back on track.

"He cares. I can tell you that. He's trying to get better. He's doing everything I ask him. He's just having a little bit of a slump this week, but he'll get back at it."

With Pig Howard out for spring practice and perhaps beyond with personal issues, North is the most productive returning receiver for Tennessee, but he doesn't view himself as a veteran, mostly because he sees too many parts of his game that still need work.

"Marquez from day one came in with a very positive attitude and a very mature approach," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "As much as anything, he wants to be great, and he's worked really hard. He has since the day he stepped on campus. He has the type of mentality you're looking for in a wide receiver.

"Now it's just a matter of -- as I keep stressing to him -- developing consistency and refining those techniques."

North said he did a number of tennis-ball workouts this offseason to improve his hand-eye coordination, and improved conditioing is another of his target areas.

Even in Tuesday's practice, after his timing was off on a comeback route, North stopped and took coaching from Azzanni before running the route again. It's not the first time that's happened in a Tennessee practice.

"Those are the kinds of players I want to to coach. He deeply cares," Azzanni said. "It appeals to his pride if he's not improving at the rate he wants to, or he's not getting better at a certain technique that he wants to. Because of that, I'll coach him, he'll listen and he'll get better at it. I can't say enough about his character. He's a great kid, so he'll be fine."

Better get another picture frame or two.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.