KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Does Tennessee have a leader among its wide receivers? It’s tough to tell.
Coach Butch Jones was asked that question following Tennessee’s scrimmage on Saturday. He pointed to junior Josh Smith. It made sense. Smith is one of the oldest and most experienced receivers on Tennessee’s roster, but don’t expect him to throw his weight around.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni said Thursday during a media session that Smith isn’t an “alpha dog” type, and that he is more of a “quiet” guy. However, Azzanni said Smith, who has started 12 games for the Vols, holds a different standing among Tennessee’s other receivers.
“I think Josh is a leader because he has some clout, has some experience and has made some big plays, does everything right for me,” Azzanni said.
Smith may never be a vocal leader, but he wants to be remembered as a hard-working mentor.
“I hope people see me as that because that’s what I’m trying to work on,” the former standout from Christian Academy (Knoxville, Tenn.) said. “When I leave here, I want people to be like, ‘Hey, I wish Josh was here because he would tell us what we did wrong or what we had to do right there.’”
Of course, Smith isn’t opposed to trash talking. After all, he plays receiver. There have been times when he’s been heard chirping, especially with defensive back Justin Martin.
“The only real talker is Justin; everyone knows that,” Smith said, referring to Tennessee’s defensive backs. “We chirp back and forth. It’s just all fun and games and competing. I love that.”
Perhaps a little bit of trash talking can motivate Smith. One of his best games came in Tennessee’s biggest win last season, a 38-31 comeback victory over Georgia. Smith hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass that helped the Vols overcome a 21-point deficit.
“Georgia was most talkative, but I’ll just leave that right there,” Smith said. “I don’t want to say anymore. I’ll get in trouble.”
Smith should have plenty of defenders to talk to this season since being moved from outside receiver to slot receiver. He’ll be surrounded. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said that slot receiver is Smith’s more natural position.
“For slots, you’re looking for quick guys, sometimes smaller guys and that describes Josh,” DeBord said. “He’s got great quickness, got great ball skills and he’s very smart.”
Said Azzani: “He’s really tough. We all know that. He makes the hard catches. He’s real quick. He’s a lot quicker than people give him credit for. He can get out of his breaks and kind of manage those voided areas in zone coverage and he can also beat man coverage.”
Smith will likely be one of the first options against teams that are intent on stopping Tennessee’s rushing attack. If opponents load up the tackle box, a quick throw to Smith can remedy the situation. He’ll also be readily available in the passing game no matter the play call.
“When you’re in the slot,” DeBord said, “you’re more in the middle of the throw game and you have more options, whereas sometimes if a quarterback is reading one side, then the outside receiver (on the other side) may not be in the read. When you’re in the slot, you’re kind of involved in all of it.”
Azzanni was the first to suggest to Smith that he move to slot receiver. Smith was all for it.
“I like space and I like to work myself in space with the nickels,” Smith said. “Having that spacing and being in the slot is huge and what I love.”
Had it not been for injuries last season, Smith would have likely spent more time at slot receiver. However, he made the best of the situation.
“Hats off to him,” Azzanni said. “Last year, my man came in and made some big-time catches on the outside, probably playing a little out of position.”
Tennessee’s passing game is the key to a more explosive offense. The Vols ranked No. 2 in the SEC in rushing and No. 9 in passing last season. Smith said there’s only so much that running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara can do.
“We can’t just rely on Jalen and Alvin,” Smith said. “Our passing game is very important. That’s what wins games too. We have to take the heat off of Jalen and Alvin. I think that’s what we’re working towards.”
Alpha or not, that sure sounds like a leader.