KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice in just over two weeks. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Wide receiver/tight end
Gone: Cordarrelle Patterson (declared for NFL); Justin Hunter (declared for NFL); Zach Rogers (graduation); *Mychal Rivera (graduation)
Returning: Pig Howard (SO); Drae Bowles (RS FR); Jacob Carter (RS JR); Vincent Dallas (JR); Cody Blanc (SO); Jason Croom (RS FR); *Brendan Downs (JR); *Justin Meredith (RS FR); *Joseph Ayres (RS SR)
Early Enrollees: Paul Harris (3-star)
Arriving in summer: MarQuez North (4-star); Ryan Jenkins (3-star); Josh Smith (3-star); *Woody Quinn (3-star); *A.J. Branisel (3-star)
Injuries: Croom missed 2012 with a shoulder injury. Meredith missed 2012 with a hamstring injury. Carter has been limited this offseason with a foot injury.
Outlook: Perhaps no other program in the nation will lose as much pass-catching ability as did Tennessee after the 2012 season.
Nearly 90 percent of the receiving production will need to be replaced in 2013 with the departure of Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera – the top four threats for the Vols in 2012. That’s not even mentioning Da’Rick Rogers, who was dismissed from the program before the season started.
In total, as many as five receivers/tight ends from UT’s roster last offseason could be drafted this April. That’s a lot of production to replace.
The future looks bright after Jones hauled in four talented prep wide receivers, one JUCO tight end and an additional high school tight end. But this spring is going to be more about evaluating the talent that is already on campus at both spots.
At receiver, Pig Howard, Jacob Carter and Vincent Dallas are the only thee returning players who recorded statistics last year. Howard worked his way up to fourth in the rotation in 2012 and figures to be among the top options for 2013. Carter, a former walk-on, and Dallas, who has played on both sides of the ball in Knoxville, both have good hands and will likely figure into the rotation.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospects to watch will be Drae Bowles and Jason Croom. Bowles never cracked the rotation in 2012, but the former four-star recruit looks the part of an emerging SEC receiver at 6-1, 200 pounds.
Speaking of size, Croom has plenty of it. The 6-5, 235-pound athlete could see action at tight end or receiver. Either way, he has the potential be a tough matchup for defenders. True freshman Paul Harris, an early enrollee, will get a jump-start on his fellow newcomers. Sophomore Cody Blanc saw the field in 11 games as a true freshman last season, but didn’t record a catch.
Tight ends Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith will get the first crack at replacing Rivera this spring. Neither is likely to be the downfield threat that Rivera was, but both bring size and versatility to the position. Downs is the more proven of the duo, but Meredith will finally get a chance after being slowed all of 2012 with a hamstring injury.
Quotable: Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni on what he looks for in a wide receiver:
“I want guys who can create separation. After fifteen years of doing this, I want personality. I want guys who have different personalities and bring a little different edge to the field. I don't need a 6-5 guy and 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 from an endurance standpoint and have the mentality to do that. Personality is big these days. If you bring the right or wrong one, it can change your program."
By the numbers:
• Dallas: (UT career) 12 catches, 186 yards, TD
• Howard: (UT career) 13 catches, 54 yards, TD; 98 all-purpose yards
• Carter: (UT career): 8 catches, 126 yards, TD
• Downs: (UT career): 6 catches, 73 yards, TD
• Harris: (SR year of H.S): 32 catches, 732 yards, 11 TDs
Projected initial spring depth chart: There will be some kind of initial depth chart at receiver, but it could be ripped up by the second week of practice. It might need to be trashed again this summer when all of the freshmen arrive. Somewhat by default, Howard, Carter and Dallas could be the first three to work with the starters, but it’ll essentially be as if this group is starting from scratch.
Downs is a fairly safe bet to start at tight end for now, but he’ll be pushed by Meredith and the newcomers who arrive this summer.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga