KNOXVILLE - After Josh Malone caught the first touchdown pass of his promising young Tennessee football career, he received some friendly criticism from fellow wide receiver Marquez North.
At least that's what he claimed long after the Volunteers finished practice Tuesday.
"I told him the celebration he did was horrible," North joked as Malone, who stopped on his way to a post-practice workout in the gaudy weight room of the Anderson Training Center, stood a few feet away.
"I don't know, I just got excited," Malone defensively declared.
In the second quarter of Tennessee's loss to Alabama, Malone hauled in a 9-yard score from quarterback Josh Dobbs on a back-shoulder fade against Crimson Tide cornerback Cyrus Jones.
Malone probably didn't envision that happening early last week, when the 6-foot-3, 204-pounder was battling a bug that forced him to lose 10 pounds, as coach Butch Jones revealed after the game.
"That was very accurate," Malone said with a laugh. "It was a bad little sickness I got. I was throwing up all over the place and just losing weight. It was bad."
After getting sick Monday, Malone couldn't resume eating until Thursday or Friday of last week, but he was able to gain back half of what he'd lost.
"I wasn't worried that I wasn't going to be able to play," he said. "I was just worried about my weight. Me losing weight means I'm getting thrown around."
The Vols hope Malone's touchdown is the first of many. He's third on the team behind North and Pig Howard with 20 catches for 218 yards this season.
After catching five passes each against Georgia and Ole Miss and posting a career-high 75 yards against the Rebels, Malone hopes to continue his road production at South Carolina on Saturday night.
"He has continuously gotten better week in and week out," Jones said, "and that's a byproduct of his work ethic, hanging on everything that Coach Z (receivers coach Zach Azzanni) tells him and (being) a very prideful young man. He takes great pride in his performance. (He's) very, very smart. He writes down all the things he needs to work on.
"The biggest change in him is probably his practice habits, understanding what it takes to have great practices, and that's all now you're seeing it on the field come game day as well. I know he was excited to get his first touchdown, and we expect many more of those to come in his career."
What Azzanni has stressed to his young protege is simple: Just improve a little bit each week. The receivers coach said last week Malone was doing that until he hit a bit of a lull against Florida, but he since has bounced back.
Against Ole Miss, Malone looked like a freshman, mixing an impressive play -- a catch he went up high over the middle to get and held onto despite taking a big hit -- with a mistake that led to an interception.
"I feel that I've improved each week, and I keep getting better at something each week," Malone said. "Going into the game, I'm just showing that I improved in that certain area."
Tennessee boasts a long history of producing talented receivers, and many of them had quiet freshman seasons.
The likes of Peerless Price, Marcus Nash and Cedrick Wilson all caught fewer than 10 passes their first seasons in Knoxville, and Joey Kent, the program's leader in catches and yards for a career, redshirted his first year, as did Donte Stallworth and Robert Meachem, who sat out with an injury.
As a 22-year-old freshman playing football after a professional baseball career, Kelley Washington caught 64 passes for 1,010 yards in 2001, and Jayson Swain had 21 receptions for 265 yards two years later. More recently, neither Justin Hunter nor Da'Rick Rogers caught more than 20 balls in 2010.
"As a freshman playing, you've just got (to know) it's more about the mental aspect and the grind of the season," said North, who caught 38 passes for 496 yards on the way to Freshman All-SEC honors in 2013.
"It just wears down on you mentally. You've got to worry about school, academics, and you've just got to stay in there. I'm going to do a good job in keeping him in there."
Jones declined to delve into a comparison of Malone's progress this year and North's development a season ago, but he said both are similar in their competitiveness, approach and work ethic.
With his first touchdown out of the way, Malone can start looking to get there more.
"I was hoping to find it sooner," he said, "but it was special to get the first one against Bama.
"It's addicting getting into the checkerboards and getting the end zone, so I'm just trying to focus on working on my technique so I can keep getting more."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.