Robert Gillespie on the Vols' running backs
Zach Azzanni talks about injuries plaguing his wide receivers
Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has gone into each of the last two scrimmages with a clear goal: Find “playmakers” for a fledgling offense.
After Thursday’s practice, the answer seemed obvious to anyone who had just watched the string of dropped passes and fumbled transitions, or seen the growing injury list, or noticed the absence of a top running back.
No, this team hasn’t found its playmakers and it might be a long wait for one to emerge.
“We need go-to playmakers — more than one guy,” Bajakian said Thursday. “We need guys that we can dial up when the game is on the line in a critical situation.”
Consistency, Bajakian said, is the key. Coaches have seen occasional flashes of potential from their skill position players, but the positives have been tempered by plenty of mistakes.
“It’s a process with all of our guys,” Bajakian said. “I’m still waiting for someone to take the reins and be that consistent playmaker.”
On Thursday, the number of potential candidates were dwindling.
Running back Marlin Lane, who is fighting Rajion Neal to be the Vols’ first-string running back, missed practice for undisclosed reasons. Head coach Butch Jones does not meet with reporters on Thursdays. His assistants seemed uncertain when Lane would return. Last week, Jones said Lane was absent to deal with an illness in his family.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni said he is now working with only four scholarship receivers, including Devrin Young, who moved from running back this spring. Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter, the two most experienced returning players, are on the shelf with injuries. So is freshman Paul Harris, who tweaked a hamstring in Saturday’s scrimmage. Jason Croom suffered the same injury on Thursday.
As it seems unlikely the playmaker question will be resolved this spring, who might the Vols be counting to step up between now and the opener?
Croom could be one of the top candidates. He played three games in 2012 before suffering an injury. He won back his lost year of eligibility with a medical hardship waiver and the new coaching staff scrapped the idea of moving him to tight end.
Even so, at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, his success relies more on size and good hands than blazing speed.
“For Jason, it’s just a matter of playing with an effort level that we want, playing with the tempo we want, and then when the ball comes your way, he has to use his size and physicality to his advantage,” Bajakian said.
Croom has gotten the message. He wrote “playmaker” on his wristbands this week and — until his hamstring injury — reeled in a few nice catches Thursday.
“We’re trying to have our team have confidence in our receivers,” Croom said.
Next in line after Croom? Even with an offense loaded with skill position stars last year, coaches found a way to work Alton “Pig” Howard into the action in his true freshman season. A slot receiver, Howard is about nine inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Croom. He caught 13 passes in 2012, which practically makes him a veteran on this squad. Jones said Howard is a work in progress who needs to grow “physically and mentally.”
“A lot of us have to pick it up and be ready to roll,” Howard said.
Young is even smaller than Howard. His strength lies in his open-field quickness and ability to outrun defenders when he gets free. But he’s a small target and has to improve his pass-catching. Young is in his third year in the program, but only his second month at the new position.
With no star players and few with any experience at the position, Azzanni said he’s the one filling the roles normally handled by veterans.
“I don’t have a leader right now. I’m the leader. I’m the captain,” he said. “We just don’t have a guy that has experience that’s stepped up, and the guys that do have a little experience aren’t playing because they’re hurt. It’s been tough.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.