KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s no secret Tennessee coach Butch Jones and widouts assistant Zach Azzanni prefer rotating receivers during games, but the Volunteers may not have the depth to do so as much this fall.
On Tuesday, Jones said it’s “critical” UT’s wideouts stay healthy in 2016, as Azzanni is comfortable playing “five or six guys” in the opener against Appalachian State next Thursday (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).
“We’re not as deep number-wise as I’d like,” Azzanni said.
“But as far as quality, I feel really good. As good as I’ve felt since I’ve been here with the quality of players we have on the edge. I wish we had some more numbers right now, but the quality of players we have out there is fun. It’s fun to be at practice.”
Tennessee will rely on juniors Josh Malone and Josh Smith, as well as sophomore Preston Williams, who looks like UT’s most explosive target. Heralded freshman Tyler Bryd will play significant snaps, too, as will fellow newcomer Marquez Callaway.
After that? A whole lot of uncertainty.
Jauan Jennings has missed several preseason practices recovering from a knee injury sustained in the spring, and although Jones “anticipates” Jennings playing against the Mountaineers, he added, “but we’ll know a little more here in the next couple of days.” Meanwhile, freshmen Latrell Williams and Brandon Johnson have been hampered by injuries, and junior college transfer Jeff George is swimming a bit late in camp.
“Right now he’s providing some depth on the outside there,” Azzanni said of George.
“He’s definitely a red zone guy. He needs to continue to develop strength-wise. He came in here at 176 (pounds) and he’s 200 pounds now.
“He came in January and he still looks like he’s playing forward on the basketball team. We have a plan with him to keep developing him all season. He needs to own the ball in the air.”
Both Azzanni and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord were complimentary of Malone’s consistency in camp and Williams’ ceiling as an outside threat, but with Tennessee’s tempo, playing just five receivers a game is less than ideal.
Even if the Volunteers can get by with just a quintet of reliable targets to start the season, they need Jennings, Williams and Johnson to get healthy fast.
“Our guys can play 80 to 85 snaps a game. Shoot, Marquez North had to do it as a freshman,” Azzanni said. “But I think the wear and tear of that starts wearing you down toward the midseason, toward the end of the season. Josh Malone found that out as a freshman. He kind of hit a wall after that Ole Miss game and he wasn’t the same the rest of the season.
“I told the receivers from the very first meeting this year, ‘We will go as far as you guys coach each other. If Malone and Smith can coach the younger players, the faster they can develop and the better we’ll be midseason to the end of the season because they’re going to have to contribute.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com