KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has known since the spring that finding receivers would be a challenge for this season after the departure of the top four pass catchers from 2012 – receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera.
It’s not getting easier. With just two full days remaining before the Vols travel to face No. 2 Oregon, the Vols had three first-year receivers running with the starters at Wednesday’s practice – Josh Smith, Marquez North and Johnathon Johnson.
Starter Pig Howard was held out of practice Wednesday with an unspecified injury.
Howard was not in pads and was working out gingerly on the sideline. Coach Butch Jones didn’t mention Howard’s injury during Tuesday’s media session and Jones doesn’t speak to the media after Tuesday.
Howard should be considered questionable for Oregon at this point.
That forces a host of newcomers to step up at Oregon – one of the most hostile environments in the country.
“The good thing is, I think Coach Jones has done a great job preparing us,” said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. “You guys are at practice – it’s chaos, a lot. The reason it’s like that is to prepare them, hopefully, as much as we can for games like this.
“This league is crazy as it is and to be able to go to Oregon, which, let’s be honest, it’s an SEC environment and an SEC-caliber team, so this will be a great test of where we’re at.”
North, a true freshman, has been entrenched at one of the starting spots since the middle of fall camp. Smith seems to have overtaken redshirt freshman Jason Croom as a starter on the other side. Johnson began the season as the third-string slot receiver, but with Devrin Young (hand) out and the potential loss of Howard, the junior-college transfer might get the starting nod Saturday.
Both Johnson and Smith showed some promising signs last week against Western Kentucky. Johnson hauled in two catches for 57 yards, including a 37-yard catch that is UT’s longest of the season. Smith had three grabs for 36 yards.
“I was pleased, they both stepped up,” said Azzanni. “They both made a lot of mistakes, but also made some plays too, so it was nice to see some guys catch the ball and have some fun doing it.”
.Out: WR Pig Howard, WR Devrin Young, CB Michael F. Williams, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, OL Jacob Gilliam, WR Ryan Jenkins, LB Raiques Crump, TE Joseph Ayres, DT Maurice Couch
. Limited: TE A.J. Branisel, LB Dontavis Sapp, DE Corey Vereen, S Brian Randolph
Couch left the practice field on Tuesday. Jones said after Tuesday’s practice that he was “overheated.” He wasn’t on the field Wednesday. Couch and former quarterback Tyler Bray have been named in a Yahoo! Sports investigative piece about SEC players who received illegal benefits. There is no confirmation or denial that Couch’s absence is related to the report.
. With Howard out of practice, sophomore receiver Johnathon Johnson was working as the starting slot receiver. Marquez North and Josh Smith were the starters at outside receivers. If that’s the starting lineup at Oregon, that will mean three first-year players are the starting receivers (Johnson is a junior college transfer).
. In addition to the Oregon fight song, Tennessee also piped in the noise of ducks quacking to help get ready for Saturday.
. With Ayres out and Branisel limited, Tennessee continues to use offensive linemen as tight ends in some situations. Both Alex Bullard and Mack Crowder have both been seen working there during practice.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga