KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s offense is better equipped to make the kind of splash it failed to produce last season.
The Volunteers struggled to deliver big gains - what coach Butch Jones refers to as “splash plays” - while going 5-7 last fall for its fourth straight losing season. Tennessee had only 11 plays from scrimmage that went at least 40 yards, down from 19 in 2012.
The development of sophomore wide receiver Marquez North and the arrival of a talented recruiting class offer the potential for more excitement this year.
“People might be sleeping on us now, but we’ve got some playmakers and all sorts of talent,” wide receiver Von Pearson said. “We’re going to make some plays.”
Jones emphasized the need for playmakers while putting together a recruiting class ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple services. Tennessee’s biggest win of Jones’ debut season - a 23-21victory over South Carolina - was made possible by North’s spectacular, one-handed 39-yard catch to set up the winning field goal.
But the Vols didn’t make enough of those highlight-worthy plays. Florida was the only Southeastern Conference offense with fewer gains of at least 40 yards last season. For comparison’s sake, SEC champion Auburn’s offense had 26 plays from scrimmage of 40-plus yards.
“In the world of college football, it is all about making big plays, making impactful plays,” Jones said. “How can you impact the game, whether it is a big run, whether it is a key block, whether it is turning a 5-yard reception into a 35-yard reception.”
The Vols’ top returning big-play threat is North, who had a team-high 498 yards receiving as a freshman after spending much of his high school career as a running back. Jones says North “is a completely different individual” this year because of how much he’s improved.
“I feel like I have a lot more potential to reach just because this is really going to be my second year of getting into it,” North said. “I’ve still got a lot of knowledge to gain. I’m just eager to get it.”
Tennessee also has plenty of intriguing newcomers. Running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone were rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service. Pearson caught 93 passes for 1,601 yards last season at Feather River (California) College.
All three benefited from participating in spring practice. In Tennessee’s spring game, Malone had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Hurd rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“Definitely getting here early was something I needed to do,” Hurd said. “I’m glad that I did it.”
Pearson has perhaps the most interesting background of these newcomers. The former Virginia prep star didn’t go to college directly out of high school and was working at McDonald’s when a friend talked him into giving football and school one more try.
That began his stunning journey from McDonald’s to Feather River to the SEC.
“For me, that is very, very rewarding, to see where that young man has come, the gratitude that he has each and every day,” Jones said. “He walks by me every day and taps me and says, ‘Thank you, Coach. Thank you for the opportunity.’ “
All these additions ought to boost a Tennessee offense that had nobody who caught more than three touchdown passes last year. Hurd should form a one-two punch in the backfield with senior Marlin Lane, who has rushed for 1,192 yards over the last two seasons.
The receiving corps features Malone, Pearson, North and junior Alton “Pig” Howard, who had a team-high 44 receptions last season. Jones also praised the early training-camp performances of freshman Vic Wharton, sophomore Josh Smith and freshman tight end Ethan Wolf.
“We still need to continue to recruit,” Jones said.” We are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of playmakers. But I think you all can see that we have really benefited from recruiting this past year.”