Not after being rated among the nation’s top receiving recruits in his class. Malone gained even more attention by catching six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. Last year no Tennessee player had more than three touchdown catches all season.
That spring performance has created plenty of anticipation about what Malone could accomplish this fall. It also has Malone’s coaches wondering how their prize pupil will deal with the adversity he inevitably will encounter.
Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni noted that Malone “quite frankly hadn’t had to work for much yet” after being so much better than most of his high school opponents. That changed when the 6-foot-3 freshman from Gallatin, Tennessee, got to college. Malone learned that lesson during an early scrimmage encounter with an all-SEC teammate.
“I caught the ball on the sidelines and I was running, I looked inside and saw A.J. Johnson coming full steam ahead,” Malone said. “I was like, ‘A linebacker isn’t supposed to get over here this fast.’ That’s what changed. The speed was just totally different. I expect it now.”
But he still has much to learn.
Malone had what coaches described as an up-and-down performance in training camp. He struggled with minor injuries. During the first part of training camp, when coaches talked about players who’d made an impression, Malone’s name didn’t come up very often.
“I think this camp has humbled him a bit in that regard,” Azzanni said. “Not that he wasn’t humble, but (it) humbled his game a little bit, if that makes sense, forced him to work on some habits on the field that I think he’s improved on.”
That improvement paid off over the last week.
After a scrimmage that was closed to the media, Tennessee coach Butch Jones mentioned that Malone had stepped up. Three days later, Malone showed flashes of his big-play ability during an open practice Saturday in front of 40,000 fans at Neyland Stadium.
“He’s a freshman, and we put a lot of expectations on him, but the great thing is he has a lot of mentors around him now,” Jones said. “That entire receiving group has a lot of confidence right now.”
Malone chose Tennessee in part for the opportunity to work for this staff. He didn’t dwell on the fact Tennessee has posted four straight losing seasons because he understood the problems Jones inherited. When Jones made his debut last year, Jones became Tennessee’s fourth head coach in a span of six seasons.
“Coach Jones really just changed the entire environment,” Malone said. “He was making the team more competitive. I really wasn’t worried about the struggles of the past. It was a new staff. It’s kind of hard to win when you have four coaches coming in and out, so I wasn’t really thinking about that.”
Tennessee’s hopes for a quick turnaround depend in part on whether newcomers such as Malone can make an immediate impact.
“I really just try not to pay attention to the expectations,” Malone said. “I know (fans) have got expectations for me. I’m just focused on what I’ve got to do to contribute on the team and help out my fellow brothers I’m going out to battle with on Saturday nights.”