KNOXVILLE – A team can’t win any games in spring practice.
A player, however, can make a name for himself. That’s exactly what receiver Von Pearson is beginning to do for Tennessee after one week of spring drills.
The highly-touted junior college prospect is living up to the hype. After showing a knack for making highlight-reel plays so far in practice, there was a noticeable buzz at practice on Thursday afternoon when coach Butch Jones called him out in front of the team to go 1-on-1 against cornerback Malik Foreman near the end zone.
Foreman blanketed Pearson as he headed for the back corner of the end zone, but Pearson, as he’s done several times already this spring, reached back with one hand and made an incredible catch. He was then mobbed by the entire offense in celebration. It was a catch so impressive that ESPN has tabbed it as a top-10 play of the day, even though it was in practice.
“He’s been a little inconsistent only because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, the game is still fast for him, but he’s ultra talented, there’s no doubt about it," said receiver coach Zach Azzanni. "He makes acrobatic catches just like he did [in junior college], he’s made a couple here in the last couple days.”
Tennessee hopes Pearson will be part of the solution to an offense that was sometimes void of playmakers in 2013. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is excited about some of the possibilities.
“Very talented,” Bajakian said. “Can stretch the field vertically with his speed and his ability to catch a deep ball and at the same time, does a good job making defenders miss once he has the ball in his hands. We have to figure out multiple ways to get him the ball, but, again, we don’t want to move too fast.”
And that’s the challenge when dealing with a talented newcomer, even from the JUCO ranks – finding the balance between letting them use their natural gifts and teaching them scheme and technique.
Pearson, for all his moves and fantastic catches, is still a good bit away from understanding the playbook and all of the nuances of the offense.
“Not very polished,” Azzanni said. “But I knew that. He’s raw, he’s gifted, he’s athletic. He picks it up really fast. He’s got a long way to go in terms of how to be a true receiver, but it’s fun to coach him because he can pick it up really quick.”
His coaches also aren’t worried about his early success on the practice field going to his head. He brings some different life experiences than many of the other newcomers. He wasn’t a mega-recruit out of high school. He put his time in at junior college, working in fast food and earning his way all the way to the SEC.
“Von brings a unique perspective and has been a good resource for the other 14 newcomers that are here this winter for the first time,” Bajakian said. “His perspective is, he's seen the other side. He's seen what it's like to work at McDonald's, to do the same thing day in and day out, at an 8-5 job or a 9-5 job.
“He comes every day to work with some energy, some passion. Frankly, it's pretty infectious. I love being around him. He's a guy that the other newcomers have rallied around to try and get the lay of the land. Not so much that he's a junior college player, but just his life experience."
• Out: WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Brendan Downs, TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles
• Jason Croom also got a shot in 1-on-1s against cornerback Cameron Sutton. Croom made a nice move to the inside, Sutton recovered and got back in time to disrupt the pass from Joshua Dobbs, but the official called him for pass interference in the process.
• In 1-on-1 pass rushing drills, tackle Marquis Pair did a nice job holding off Corey Vereen. Freshman Coleman Thomas, who has been getting reps as the starting right tackle, also held his own against Curt Maggitt. Thomas also had one of the best performances in the ‘bull in the ring’ drill, driving defensive lineman Dimarya Mixon with ease and getting the whole offense to celebrate with him after it.
• With the weather a littler colder, the Vols moved practice to their indoor facility. They will practice one more time on Friday afternoon before taking time off for spring break.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga