KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — You can bet Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni is running his position group exactly like his boss wants.
UT head coach Butch Jones was a receiver when he played at Ferris State and has also been a receivers coach during his career.
So when Azzanni took the time to explain what was happening with the Vols receiver rotation at UT’s media day on Saturday, he did it for the sake of the fans who might have been confused by what appeared to be inconsistency at the position.
There’s a reason the Vols are shuffling wideouts on and off the field in their no-huddle attack.
“That seems to be like the biggest point of contention, is rotation, and what it quite frankly sounds like is people don’t understand today’s game,” Azzanni said. “This is not a pro-style huddle game anymore. It’s not.”
Indeed, even College Football Playoff teams that run the pro-style offense — Big Ten champ Michigan State and defending national champ Alabama — run some elements of no-huddle and spread.
“You go anywhere around the country and you look at no-huddle offenses, (and) wideouts don’t play more than four or five snaps in a row because you’re going all the time,” said Azzanni, a receiver himself during his playing career at Central Michigan (1994-1998).
“We’re two-deep, we’re probably six deep (altogether) right now, but they are great players and that’s what I’m excited about,” Azzanni said. “I’m going to rotate the guys that can help us win. If that’s four, that’s four. If that’s six, that’s six.”
Azzanni said there are some no-huddle teams that don’t allow their receivers to stay in the game more than two plays.
Where Tennessee is concerned, the Vols have a “Catapult” tracking system in the shoulder pads of their players, so they’re able to measure each player’s performance and workload.
“Sports science tells you the way the game is played, you got to make sure these guys are quick twitched and they are playing fast, because we don’t huddle, we don’t stop,” Azzanni said. “The rotation is based off how many reps those guys can get endurance wise, and how deep we’re going to be.
“In practice, you get a feel for how many reps a guy can go in row, hard and fast,” he said. “So you get a gauge.”
Azzanni said the UT staff constantly monitors the players’ speeds and the distances they have run, enabling them to maximize the practices.
The players have enjoyed seeing the top speeds posted. So far, freshman Tyler Byrd has reached the fastest speed on the team, according to the tracking system.
Byrd appears to be the most likely impact player among the freshman newcomers, currently No. 2 on the depth chart at slot receiver behind Josh Smith.
Azzanni explained why Byrd is lining up in the slot, even though he has demonstrated the highest top-end speed.
“We’re good outside; we’ve got Josh Malone and Preston Williams and Jeff George and Jauan (Jennings), Marqueze Callaway and Brandon Johnson, those guys are body-type outside guys,” Azzanni said. “At slot we needed a Latrell Williams, a Tyler Byrd, to help Josh Smith out.”
Jennings, Williams and Johnson have been slowed by undisclosed injuries in fall camp.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.