With no Josh Malone, Tennessee’s receiving corps is hardly plush with proven playmakers.
Three of the top four pass catchers from the 2016 team are gone (Malone, Alvin Kamara, Jason Croom), but while new position coach Kevin Beard inherited a group in transition, he’s “excited” about the potential of his young unit.
“Guys are buying in. Guys are learning to trust,” Tennessee’s first-year receivers coach said last week.
“We’re getting to know each other on a level where, whatever problems you’ve got, we’ve got answers. They’re seeing it, and they’re learning. They’re developing and they’re showing it by coming out everyday and giving us all they have.”
Junior star Jauan Jennings is the unquestioned alpha dog of the group, but sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway has had an excellent spring, emerging as a legit second option opposite of JJ. Beard likes the promise of Callaway, as well as second-year targets Tyler Byrd, Latrell Williams and Brandon Johnson. He's also excited about having a full unit this summer with senior Josh Smith, out this spring with multiple injuries, and freshmen Joshua Palmer, Jordan Murphy and Jacquez Jones all joining the fold, too.
“They’re all coming along quite well,” Beard said. “With the guys we’re bringing in this June, it’s going to be a healthy competition. And I really do believe, coming from Miami, competition is everything. It fuels the competitors. You’re going to do one of two things: Fold or you’re going to focus.
“Right now, they’re learning to focus and apply the technique and fundamentals and just bring the hard hat every day.”
Consistency remains the biggest hurdle with the young group. Whether it’s route running, simply catching the football, or honing in on the details like blocking and spacing, Beard is stressing constant growth. Since taking over for Zach Azzanni, the new Vols assistant has related well to the inexperienced unit, hailing Jennings “a championship-caliber” player and bonding with fellow Sunshine State natives he recruited while a staff member at Miami.
Harkening back to his playing days as a captain on a championship Hurricanes team, Beard still rocks cleats at practice as a bridge for trust with his players.
“Being able to get out there and do it for them, demonstrate it, it gave me a little more credibility,” Beard said.
“It’s almost like, ‘If he did it. I’ve got to do it. I’m not going to let him show me up.’ That’s what it’s been. Really competitive. They don’t want me to outdo them because I’m too old for that.”
Asked for a further explanation on his shoe choice during practices, Beard said, “Because I’m them. I’m just an older version of them. Once you get on their level, and they see you are able to get on their level, they can trust you.
“Now, when they trust you and they let you in, you bring them up to your level. That’s how you kind of reel them in. That’s a little bit of the process.”