KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee bills itself as ”Wide Receiver U” because of its history of sending wideouts to the NFL.
History? That’s fine. The present? Not so much.
No Vols player accumulated more than 618 yards receiving or five touchdown catches in any of the last three seasons. Those are disappointing figures for a school that had 11 wide receivers drafted in the first round between 1977 and 2013, including the likes of Stanley Morgan, Willie Gault and Alvin Harper.
Upgrading the passing attack has been a priority at spring practice.
”We have dynamic backs,” receiver Josh Smith said Monday. ”We’ve got to take the pressure off of them – and that’s what we’re going to do.”
There’s still plenty of room for improvement in that regard. The passing game was singled out for criticism after Saturday’s practice.
”We had way too many dropped footballs,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ”We have to be able to execute better in the throw game. That will be a point of emphasis as we close out spring football.”
Tennessee doesn’t need the passing game to carry its offense. Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and quarterback Joshua Dobbs rushed for a combined 2,657 yards and 30 touchdowns last season.
But the Vols do need more accuracy and explosiveness from their passing attack to contend in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee’s leading receiver in 2015 was Von Pearson with 38 catches for 409 yards and three touchdowns in his senior year. Every other SEC team aside from Missouri had a player with over 650 yards receiving last season.
”Ultimately it comes down to us,” tight end Ethan Wolf said. ”The coaches can say and teach what they want, but it comes down to that inner `want-to’ to make plays on the football. I would say almost every catch that you make in this conference is going to be contested. You’ve got to have that `want-to,’ you’ve got to want the ball more than the defenders do.”
Tennessee’s receivers are not the only ones that need to get better. Dobbs, whose completion percentage dipped from .633 in 2014 to .596 in 2015, must be more accurate. Tennessee also must improve its pass protection, with left tackle Kyler Kerbyson having graduated.
”When we throw the football, we have to be 65-70 percent in terms of completion percentage,” Jones said.
The Vols also want better production on deep passes.
”We’ve got some big-play capabilities out there,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. ”Those guys, they’re as good as you’ll find running the deep ball. We’ve just got to keep throwing it, catching it, working on it.”
Tennessee has the elements to improve its passing game with wide receivers Preston Williams and Josh Malone, who has been sidelined this spring by an unspecified injury.
Williams wasn’t declared eligible last year until late August, which limited his production as a freshman. Receiver Jauan Jennings didn’t move over from quarterback until last summer. Now both players have had time to develop.
Smith has earned praise for his move to the slot this spring. He made perhaps the biggest catch of Tennessee’s 2015 season with a 39-yard touchdown on fourth-and-8 to spark the Vols’ rally from a 21-point deficit in a 38-31 victory over Georgia.
Jason Croom has returned from a knee injury that prevented him from playing last year, and has switched from receiver to tight end. Croom, 6-foot-5 and 246 pounds, is better suited to play tight end and adds depth to that position.
So the pieces are in place. Now the Vols just have to put it all together and prevent defenses from focusing entirely on Tennessee’s potent rushing attack.
”If we do that – if we match up the run game and passing game – I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” Smith said.
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