KNOXVILLE – New Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni
isn’t surprised by what he will face in his position group in 2013.
The Vols will be forced to replace 2,352 yards of receiving next year (87.7 percent of 2012’s production) after the early departure of juniors Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, along with the graduation of Zach Rogers.
That fact isn’t lost on him, but he’s also optimistic about what he does have coming back along with what he hopes to bring in.
“There’s a good foundation here,” Azzanni said on Thursday in his first interview since coming to Tennessee fresh off of coaching Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. “There are some good young guys who are hungry. We don’t have enough of them. That’s why we’re on the road grinding right now in recruiting. We have to get some more – there’s no doubt.”
Azzanni will return three receivers who recorded stats in 2012 – Pig Howard (13 catches, 54 yards), Jacob Carter (eight, 126) and Vincent Dallas (nine, 149). A fourth, Cody Blanc, saw the field but didn’t make a catch.
They’ll be joined by two other scholarship freshmen who redshirted in 2012, Drae Bowles and Jason Croom. The 6-5, 232-pound Croom had plans to switch to tight end under the former staff, but Azzanni and head coach Butch Jones could revisit those plans.
Working with a group of inexperienced receivers does have some upside, says Azzanni, who is entering his 15th year as an assistant.
“I met with all the kids and they’re hungry,” he said. “They’re hungry for a change. For me, it’s good – I have to have a silver lining after losing a bunch of first rounders – that there’s no bad habits I have to break. I get to come in with a blank canvas.”
And Azzanni holds no grudge against Hunter and Patterson for their decision to leave early. He recruited Hunter while he was an assistant at Florida in 2010 and understands that both have a chance to be an early pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
“I knew what kind of athlete (Hunter) was going to be,” Azzanni said. “I knew in three or four years, he probably wouldn’t be hanging around. I had a pretty good idea. I didn’t know (Patterson) at all, but I kind of had an idea that if any time there’s a first or second round draft pick, those kids usually go.”
Though he’s not permitted to comment on specific recruits, Azzanni has already helped land four-star wide receiver Ryan Jenkins of Marietta, Ga. The Vols also hold commitments from Josh Smith of Knoxville and Paul Harris, a four-star prospect out of Upper Marlboro Maryland, who enrolled on Wednesday.
The former staff emphasized tall and rangy wide receivers. Azzanni said there’s not one physical mold that he must see to recruit a player.
“We want speed,” he said. “I want guys who can create separation. I want personality. I want guys who have different personalities and bring a little bit different of an edge to the field.
“I don’t need a 6-5 guy, I don’t need a 5-8 guy, I need a mix of both. Guys that have loose hips, guys that attack the ball and guys that can play in a no-huddle, up-tempo offense and have the mentality to do that.”
The Vols will probably be able to bring in at least four receivers in this class, but Azzanni, who will also serve as recruiting coordinator, admitted the staff is handicapped right now because of having less than a month until signing day (Feb. 6).
“Right now it’s who’s interested?” he said. “Who can we build a relationship with quick? Who did they have a previous relationship with, who did we as coaches coming in have a relationship? Who do we have a shot with? Next year, we can be a little more picky, but right now we need to find guys we can build a relationship with now.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga