The changing jersey number of freshman Paul Harris exemplifies the youth and inexperience of Tennessee's receiving corps.
Harris received Tennessee's No. 1 jersey after graduating from high school early to participate in spring practice with the Vols. After Harris struggled, Tennessee coach Butch Jones switched him to a baggy No. 91 jersey normally worn by defensive linemen. Harris regained his No. 1 jersey for Tuesday's practice session, but he was back in No. 91 on Thursday.
“It's Coach Jones trying to motivate him with some tough love,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “When (Harris) doesn't play fast or play physical, (Jones) puts him in that big, big jersey that makes him look slow and all that stuff. If he wants No. 1, he better play faster and better play harder.”
Jones is using plenty of motivational ploys to get his young receiving corps to grow up in a hurry following the departures of Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers.
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Patterson and Hunter passed up their senior seasons to turn pro, and both are potential first-round selections in the draft later this month. Tennessee also must replace Rogers, a potential mid-round draft pick who boosted his pro stock last fall with a breakthrough senior season.
Those three players combined to catch 151 passes for 2,352 yards and 21 touchdowns last fall. Their departures leave Tennessee without any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes or accumulated more than 149 receiving yards a year ago.
“With those guys gone, we pretty much just have to take over,” said Devrin Young, a former running back who moved to receiver this spring. “We can't look to those guys anymore to make the big play. We've got to be the guys to make the big plays. That's what we're focused on.”
The inexperience in the receiving corps represents one of Tennessee's biggest concerns this spring. Jones made that point clear this week when the Volunteers returned from spring break and resumed workouts.
“Our receiving corps has to step up,” Jones said after Tuesday's practice. “We're not anywhere where we need to be.”
Jones' criticism apparently inspired the receivers.
“We knocked a little beach out of them Tuesday, knocked a little spring break out of them, but they responded well today,” Azzanni said Thursday. “We have so much to improve on, but they came out and they're not resisting, and that's what's good. They're diving in. That's the best thing about them. I'm up their tail, I coach them hard, I don't let them breathe. They came out today with a better mindset. They really want to do well. They're trying. I can appreciate that.”
Tennessee needs someone in this group to emerge as a playmaker.
The top returning wideout in terms of receptions is Alton “Pig” Howard, a 5-foot-8 sophomore who caught 13 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown last season. Vincent Dallas had nine receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown last year.
Tennessee will get a boost this summer with the arrival of 6-foot-4 freshman MarQuez North, rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 2 receiver in the 2013 recruiting class.
All the receivers must adjust to the faster pace of Jones' offense. Azzanni said he couldn't even grade the last few periods of the Vols' first couple of workouts this spring because players made so many fundamental breakdowns out of exhaustion.
But they're starting to get better.
Jones singled out Jason Croom for praise this week. Croom played three games as a freshman last fall before redshirting with a shoulder injury.
At 6-5 and 232 pounds, Croom possesses the size that Tennessee lost when the 6-3 Patterson and the 6-4 Hunter decided to enter the draft. Now he must learn to make the most of it. Croom said he wrote “No missed physical opportunities” on his wrist Tuesday to reinforce what he has heard all spring from his coaches.
“That's what the coaches have been talking to me about, using my size more and having more confidence when I'm out there,” Croom said. “That's what I've been working on.”
Croom isn't the only receiver who's been working overtime.
Azzanni said he was picking something up from his office recently when he noticed sophomore Cody Blanc running routes on his own in the indoor practice facility. Azzanni also mentioned that Harris - the guy in that loose No. 91 jersey - has done so much extra work that he's “shut my door and turned my lights off because I've already gone home” the last two nights.
“He should be going to prom in a month,” Azzanni said. “Instead he's got `Coach Z' absolutely up his rear end and every single snap. He'll be fine.”