KNOXVILLE – Completing a pass and getting any yardage was sometimes a challenge for the 2013 Tennessee offense, which finished among the worst in the conference.
Forget about regularly moving the ball in chunks.
That was somewhat understandable. They were working with virtually no returning experience after a mass exodus at quarterback, receiver and tight end after the 2012 season. Fixing that has been one of the biggest challenges coach Butch Jones has faced since arriving in Knoxville.
After a season of developing the young talent already on the roster and adding several key pieces in recruiting, he thinks he’s well on his way.
“Big plays were almost non-existent last year,” said Jones. "[Early in spring practice] we’ve had some big plays from some quality players. That makes us very optimistic. It’s very early, but we have to make some big plays and I think we have some individuals who have the capability to make big plays.”
Some of those individuals are returning players. Rising sophomore receiver Marquez North showed several glimpses of his potential to become an All-SEC type of receiver in 2013. He caught 38 passes for 496 yards and a touchdown with several highlight-reel catches.
Jason Croom, a large target at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, developed into a reliable possession receiver last season. He’s off to an impressive start this spring, looking quicker than last year and making several impressive grabs.
Other young receivers such as Josh Smith and Johnathon Johnson also had their moments in 2013. With Pig Howard out for at least the spring, they should get even more opportunities.
And while North is UT’s No. 1 target going into 2014, he’s glad to have some incoming help to go with the others who were already on campus.
“It feels great,” North said. “Von [Pearson] and Josh [Malone], they’re going to be great players. I’m just ready to see them come out.”
Most of the new excitement does center on Pearson, a junior college transfer, and Malone, a five-star recruit out of Middle Tennessee. They bring a different level of speed and athleticism than what UT has seen in recent years. Watch what Pearson did in one of his first college practices ever.
Add in a pair of new tight ends in Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf in addition to five-star tailback Jalen Hurd, who will pair with senior Marlin Lane, and it’s clear to see why there’s optimism that the big play could be coming back to Tennessee in the near future.
“I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” Jones said of why the Vols look more explosive on offense. “First of all, experience of a lot of individuals going through it for a year. Also the additions of Von Pearson and Josh Malone and Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf and Hurd. All of them. All of those individuals – you could see the difference in team speed.”
Lane agreed, saying he sees a more explosive offense coming in 2014.
“I think so,” he said. “Everybody is getting the hang of it. We just practice tempo, tempo and consistency in our performance.”
• Out: WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles
• How the team lines up on its first day should be taken with a large grain of salt, but this was the first look UT went with on defense, while in the nickel package:
DE: Corey Vereen, Jordan Williams
DT: Danny O’Brien, Owen Williams
LB: A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt
CB: Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley
NB: Justin Coleman
S: LaDarrell McNeil, Devaun Swafford
DE: LaTroy Lewis, Jaylen Miller
DT: Jason Carr, Allan Carson
LB: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jakob Johnson
CB: Riyahd Jones, Malik Foreman
NB: D’Andre Payne
S: Justin Coleman, Geraldo Orta/Lemond Johnson
I’ll give my normal warning about not reading too much into initial depth charts. Guys will get looks with different units and at different positions sometimes, but this is a good starting point.
• There were a few surprises on defense. First, Moseley, a true freshman, was working with the starters. He looks like one of the fastest players on the field, though he needs to gain more weight. Coleman is doing some cross-training, working as a nickelback with the first team and a safety with the second. He was one of the starting outside cornerbacks last year. Also, Swafford, who played nickel last year, was working as a starting safety with Randolph out for the spring.
• Coach Butch Jones gathered the team up to watch three 1-on-1 drills between cornerbacks and receivers.
1. Justin Coleman went up against Marquez North and came away with an interception on a jump ball.
2. Malik Foreman knocked away a pass intended for Josh Malone
3. Von Pearson made a fantastic leaping catch in the corner of the end zone over Cameron Sutton (pictured above)
• Kicking is still a major work in progress. Derrick Brodus and George Bullock struggled to make field goals beyond 40 yards.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga