KNOXVILLE -- With Tennessee nearing the start of spring practice one week from today, the Times Free Press will take a position-by-position look at the Volunteers as they return to the practice field to continue preparations for the 2015 season, Butch Jones's third as coach. After beginning with the quarterbacks and running backs, the preview rolls on today with the wide receivers and continues Wednesday with the tight ends.
* Pig Howard (Sr.): His Tennessee future looked bleak this time last year, but Howard got his career back on track and led the Vols in catches (54) and yards (618) and scored three touchdowns (two rushing) last season. In 2013, Howard had a team-high 44 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns. His 111 career receptions are the 13th-most in program history.
* Von Pearson (R-Sr.): Despite missing all of two games and large parts of two more with an ankle injury, Pearson finished his first season with the Vols second on the team in catches (38) and yards (393) and caught a team-high five touchdown passes.
* Marquez North (Jr.): After an All-SEC freshman season in 2013, North caught 30 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns before a torn labrum ended his season in November. He's expected to be limited this spring.
* Josh Smith (R-So.): A promising start to his sophomore season turned into a lost year for Smith, who suffered an ankle injury at Oklahoma in September and underwent season-ending surgery later. He received a medical redshirt, though, and should be full go this month.
* Jason Croom (R-Jr.): The dislocated kneecap Croom suffered during December bowl prep means he'll miss spring practice. The jumbo wideout finished the 2014 season with 21 catches for 305 yards and four touchdown catches, including one in three straight games in November.
* Josh Malone (So.): The five-star recruit played through multiple minor nagging injuries during a frustrating freshman season. In back-to-back games in October, though, Malone showed why he has a bright future with a five-catch, 75-yard game at Ole Miss and the first touchdown catch of his career against Alabama.
* Johnathon Johnson (Sr.): The diminutive slot receiver, who suffered a wrist injury late in the season, had just 10 catches last season, though a couple were key grabs against Georgia and Florida. His lone two touchdown catches came against UT-Chattanooga.
* Cody Blanc (R-Jr.): The three-time SEC academic honor roll member missed the 2014 season with a torn Achilles' tendon. He'z had just one catch in 21 career games.
* Vic Wharton announced earlier this month he would transfer to California following a freshman season at Tennessee. Redshirt freshman Ryan Jenkins also announced he would transfer at the end of the spring semester. After spending three years playing special teams and the scout team, Drae Bowles enrolled at UTC in January.
* Jacob Carter was the only senior receiver for Tennessee last season. The former walk-on caught one pass in nine games in 2014.
* The rash of injuries for Tennessee's receivers including their future players, as touted prospect Preston Williams, a player the Vols fended off Georgia and Auburn to land, tore his ACL in September.
* Two of Tennessee's incoming freshmen athletes, Jocquez Bruce and Vincent Perry, could get looks in the slot given their size, speed and shiftiness.
DID YOU KNOW?
Among SEC wide receivers, Tennessee's receiving-yardage leader finished 14th (Howard) in 2014 and 27th (North) in the conference after the Vols had three different receivers finish fourth, second and fourth, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards in 2010 (Denarius Moore -- 981), 2011 (Da'Rick Rogers -- 1,040) and 2012 (Justin Hunter -- 1,083).
Will there be any lingering effects from all of last season's injuries? The receivers were probably Tennessee's most talented unit last season, but that talent can't help when it's on crutches or wearing arm slings or walking boots.
The Vols will welcome Smith back from his absence, but Croom will be out and North will be limited for the spring. It's worth wondering, too, if those injuries stunted the development of the younger players, particularly Smith and Malone. The transfers of Wharton and Jenkins, who both saw more snaps late last season, leaves the Vols lacking the depth they'd like.
Much like last season, the potential for Tennessee's receivers is fairly high -- if they can stay healthy.
ONE TO WATCH
What might have Pearson's first season at Tennessee looked like had he not suffered a high ankle sprain five quarters into the season? The talented junior college transfer was on his way to a big game when he got hurt against Arkansas State, and that performance could have been a springboard to a big season for Pearson, who turns 24 in June.
As he got healthier, Pearson, who made some wow plays last spring, produced more. He caught four of his team-leading five touchdown passes in the last six games of the season, including an impressive seven-catch, 75-yard game in the TaxSlayer Bowl. His attitude and work ethic make him one of Coach Jones's favorite players.
Howard and Smith should be reliable targets for quarterback Josh Dobbs, North and Croom bring size to the receiving corps and Malone has a bright future, but Pearson is probably Tennessee's most dynamic wideout.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.