The Minnesota Vikings selected Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round, the Tennessee Titans took Justin Hunter in the second round and the Oakland Raiders chose tight end Mychal Rivera in the sixth round. Zach Rogers signed as a free agent with the New York Jets.
Their departures leave Tennessee without any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes or accumulated more than 149 receiving yards last season. Marquez North and Josh Smith, freshmen who weren’t around for spring practice, already are getting first-team reps. All starting positions in the receiving corps remain up for grabs.
“I told my wife today this season may age me about 10 years,” Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni quipped after Tuesday night’s practice. “There will be some peaks and valleys for sure. There will be a lot of growing pains, but they’re willing and it will be fun coaching these young guys.”
Tennessee’s lack of proven playmakers in the passing game represents a major concern heading into the Aug. 31 season opener with Austin Peay. A first-year starting quarterback who hasn’t been named yet will be throwing to an untested receiving corps.
Azzanni says he feels “a lot better” about his receivers now than in spring practice, when his players struggled to adapt to new coach Butch Jones’ fast-paced offense.
“We’ve come a long way,” sophomore Alton “Pig” Howard said. “A lot of us got used to the offense. Everyone’s buying in. We’re way more conditioned.”
The arrival of a talented freshman class provides hope. The headliner in that group is North, one of the nation’s top receiving prospects in his class.
At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, North possesses the size this receiving corps was seeking. Tennessee’s only wideouts who caught a pass last year - Howard, junior Jacob Carter, junior Vincent Dallas and converted running back Devrin Young - are 6 feet or shorter. The Vols do have 6-5 redshirt freshman Jason Croom, who has earned plenty of praise from the new staff.
“In a very small time, (North) has proven that he’s going to be one of our playmakers,” Jones said. “He’s dynamic. He’s strong. He’s physical. He can run.”
Smith also has made a favorable impression, though an injury prevented him from working out with the other receivers Tuesday. Newcomers also include Blinn (Texas) College transfer Johnathon Johnson plus freshmen Paul Harris and Ryan Jenkins. Harris enrolled in time to participate in spring practice.
Azzanni said he likes to rotate as many as nine receivers, so every wideout on the roster has an opportunity. These receivers are getting a crash course on how to thrive with this staff.
Howard said he’s watched film of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, who transformed from walk-on to star while playing for Jones and Azzanni at Central Michigan. Azzanni, who came to Tennessee from Wisconsin, said he spent the majority of an hour-long meeting Tuesday showing clips of Jared Abbrederis, a former walk-on who earned all-Big Ten honors with the Badgers a year ago.
Perhaps one of these young receivers eventually develops into the next Abbrederis or Brown so that Tennessee fans won’t spend the season looking back wistfully at the exploits of Patterson and Hunter. But no leader from this group has emerged just yet.
“I wish we had a little bit more ‘alpha male’ in our group, but we just don’t,” Azzanni said. “Part of the reason is because we don’t have a guy who’s stepped up and taken a starting job yet. No one’s really stepped up and said, ‘I’m the man. Follow me.’ Everyone’s still trying to find their way, feel their way and earn a spot.”