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Players celebrate with Tennessee wide receiver Jason Croom after he scored a touchdown during the Vols' 29-21 loss to the Missouri Tigers.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's depleted receiving corps might have taken another hit this week.

Jason Croom, who caught a touchdown pass in each of the Volunteers' past three games, crumpled to the Haslam Field turf on Tuesday, grabbing his left knee, and was being looked at by members of the training staff as the open-viewing portion of practice ended.

The sophomore was not at practice during the brief open period Wednesday as Tennessee continued to prepare for Saturday's trip to Vanderbilt.

After Tuesday's practice, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Croom suffered from a cramp in his hamstring and his hip -- it looked much worse when he went down -- and said the receiver finished practice.

Tennessee has been without Josh Smith, who suffered an ankle injury at Oklahoma and will get a medical redshirt, since mid-September, and Marquez North was limited for games against South Carolina and Kentucky before missing last week's game against Missouri and undergoing surgery on a torn labrum this week.

Von Pearson also missed a chunk of the season with a high-ankle sprain.

If Croom is unavailable, freshmen Josh Malone and Vic Wharton -- along with Ryan Jenkins, the redshirt freshman who recorded his first catch of the season last week, and Johnathon Johnson, who had a two-touchdown game against UT-Chattanooga last month -- would need to step up and help leading receiver Pig Howard and Pearson.

"I have a lot of confidence in those guys," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said, "and the reason I have confidence in Vic and Ryan is because they've put together a couple of really good weeks of practice. They work at it. That's why I have confidence in them.

"You build trust through practice. That's how you build trust. I see them do it in practice, they'll play it in the game, just like they did the other day."

Crowder 'questionable'

Tennessee center Mack Crowder returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since spraining his knee and ankle in the second half against Kentucky two weeks ago.

His status remains unclear for Saturday's game, and Dylan Wiesman would start again if Crowder can't play.

A couple of the sacks Tennessee gave up to Missouri were due to Wiesman not getting over to a defensive tackle quickly enough when he was pulling on a play, but the Tigers have given plenty of teams similar problems this season.

"He did some things that I was really encouraged with," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "I was concerned going in that he was going to hold onto a mistake a little bit longer than he should, trying to play perfect and that type of thing. He really went out there and just cut it loose.

"He had some mistakes that occurred as it will, but all in all I was pleased with some of the things that he was able to do and some things that he showed. He was able to be stout in some things where he needed to, so there was definitely some things to grow from."

Malone's miss

The turning point of Tennessee's loss to Missouri last week may have been the interception that went through Malone's hands and into the hands of Tigers cornerback Kenya Dennis.

On its ensuing possession, Maty Mauk and Jimmie Hunt hooked up for a 73-yard touchdown that extended Missouri's lead to 23-13 early in the fourth quarter.

"Josh is a resilient kid. He bounced back fine," Azzanni said. "The thing about Josh is he's been in the spotlight his whole life with his talent level and everything. He's bounced back just fine. We're helping him get through it.

"But I tell him, 'The way you practice is the way you play.' I tell all my guys that. He didn't have a great practice that last week, and it leads sometimes to some bad habits, but the great thing about Josh is he'll learn from those mistakes.

"I'm behind him 100 percent. With wideouts, they know, he knows, 'Ah, I should have had that ball.' He's a great player, and he'll have a thousand more shots at those plays, and he'll make them next time."

After a five-catch, 75-yard performance at Ole Miss last month, Malone, who's battling a shoulder injury, has been quiet, The freshman has just three catches for 18 yards in the past four games. The Gallatin resident will be looking to bounce back close to home Saturday, though.

"We haven't really talked about it or made it like that," Azzanni said. "We've made it about how can we play a really good game. How can we play our best play each play? We've really focused on that. I've got to do that with young guys.

"You get ahead of yourself with a guy like Josh or Vic or those guys, and you start thinking about going home -- I don't care if we play in Alaska. We've got to go run a really good route and block people."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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