How do you replace two players who combined for 119 catches for 1,861 yards and 14 touchdowns?
That’s what Tennessee got out of receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson in 2012. That’s the problem Tennessee coach Butch Jones, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni are facing this spring.
Hunter and Patterson were quarterback Tyler Bray’s main offensive weapons and are the biggest reasons Tennessee ranked second behind Texas A&M in the SEC in passing offense and total offense. Now all three are gone as early entrants into the NFL Draft and Tennessee is left to find new ways to replace the holes left by the trio, especially the big playmakers Hunter and Patterson.
At this juncture of spring practice, no receiver has yet stepped up to fill those mighty big shoes.
“No, not yet. Again there’s no secret about it, it’s a very, very young position,” said Jones. “Not very many of these individuals have played. We have positional changes there. It’s a process by which the style and manner that we want to play, but I do see strides; I do see progress being made. Again, this is a football team that we have to continue, overall, to get better. We keep talking about it as one day at a time.”
The Vols also lost their third and fourth leading receivers in tight end Mychal Rivera and Zach Rogers. This spring, the Vols have 15 wide receivers on their roster, eight of which are freshmen and sophomores. Tailback Marlin Lane, who made five starts last season and finished with 29 receptions for 228 yards, is the team’s top returning pass catcher.
Obviously there is plenty of work to be done but Bajakian is seeing improvement.
“It’s night and day right now,” he said. “Can we get better? Absolutely. They’re making plays and that’s the one thing. We completed three of four deep balls with guys going up and making the play with defenders draped all over them. That’s a big difference.
“We always say there are four to six plays in the course of a game that will determine the win or loss. You don’t know what plays the four or six are going to be and often times it comes down to a guys on the perimeter making a play in a critical situation. Today we saw that and I was happy to see guys step up.”
Cody Blanc, Jason Croom, Paul Harris and Vincent Dallas are receivers who have turned in good days on the practice field according to the wide receivers coach.
“I thought Saturday Cody Blanc took a big step. He had some nice catches. He’s trying to work the position. He’s trying to work the position and be better. I thought he took a big step,” said Azzanni.
“Croom and Paul both made nice catches, Vincent Dallas made a nice catch today. That’s progress. It’s the plays after those catches, where we’re just not in shape yet to twist the knife, we’re just not there yet. That’s disappointing but we have high standards here and we’re going to keep them high.”
Of course a big key piece in the passing game is finding a replacement for Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns. There are five quarterbacks trying to establish a hold on the No. 1 position — Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Tyler Page, Patrick Ashford and Joe Stocstill. Worley is the only one with any collegiate experience at all. He appeared in five games last season and completed 15 passes out of 23 attempts for 134 yards with two interceptions.
“I like where they are,” said Bajakian. “We emphasize in our meeting room, No. 1 leadership ability. We also emphasize protecting the football. Through practices one through five we threw too many interceptions, but we’re getting better. We emphasize completing the football, taking what the defense gives you and managing the football game.”
When the Vols settle on a quarterback, whoever wins the job will not have a Hunter or Patterson to throw to as a safety net. But Tennesseehas a reputation for outstanding wide receivers and Azzanni is planning on continuing that tradition.