Zach Azzanni talks UT football recruiting
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni's new job is much tougher now than it was when he got hired last month.
That's just what Azzanni expected.
Azzanni took over a receiving corps that featured all-Southeastern Conference selections Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, projected as potential first-round draft picks. Both players have since decided to bypass their senior seasons to turn pro, leaving Tennessee without any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes this season.
"I kind of had a feeling," Azzanni said. "Any time they're a first-round draft pick or late first round or early second round, those kids usually go."
Azzanni and defensive line coach Steve Stripling met the media Thursday for the first time since taking over their new jobs. Azzanni, the former Wisconsin receivers coach, had stayed with the Badgers for their 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford. Stripling served as Cincinnati's interim head coach for its 48-34 Belk Bowl victory over Duke.
Both have plenty of work ahead.
Azzanni must rebuild a receiving corps that also loses tight end Mychal Rivera and wideout Zach Rogers, who just finished their senior seasons. Rivera caught 36 passes for 562 yards and five touchdowns this fall. Rogers had 32 catches for 491 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Vols don't have any receivers with the obvious big-play ability of Hunter or Patterson. Hunter caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns this season as a second-team all-SEC pick. Patterson had 46 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns while earning first-team all-SEC honors as an all-purpose player.
Tennessee's new receivers will be working with a new quarterback, since Tyler Bray also decided to forgo his senior season to enter the draft.
This is a familiar situation for Azzanni.
Azzanni worked as Florida's receivers coach and passing game coordinator in 2010, the season after the Gators lost Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow, Mackey Award-winning tight end Aaron Hernandez and wideouts Riley Cooper and David Nelson to the NFL. He headed to Wisconsin in 2012 after former Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson was drafted in the third round and wide receiver Nick Toon went in the fourth round.
"It's like my wife says, 'You never do anything easy,' " said Azzanni , who also is the Vols' recruiting coordinator. "If there wasn't bad luck, I wouldn't have luck. I go into it thinking this is a great opportunity. These guys are a blank canvas for me. I'm excited."
The Vols return Alton "Pig" Howard, who caught 13 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown as a freshman this season. Vincent Dallas had nine receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown in his sophomore year this fall. Jacob Carter added eight receptions for 126 yards as a junior.
They're the only returning wideouts who caught a pass this season.
Azzanni said all the receivers would head into spring practice with a clean slate. He promised that Tennessee would have the best blocking receivers in the country. He wants Tennessee to regain its status as "Wide Receiver U.," a nickname the program earned by having six receivers drafted in the first round from 1982-91.
"Receivers should be knocking on our door, quite honestly," Azzanni said. "We need to get that back here, we need to get that back, where it's a little bit easier to recruit a wideout here, so they understand the tradition of playing here. Playing that position here is a big deal. "
Stripling also is seeking reinforcements after losing three defensive linemen. The Vols announced Tuesday that freshmen Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor were no longer with the team. The Vols lost their top pass rusher from this season Wednesday with the announcement that Darrington Sentimore was entering the draft, though the line still returns 2012 starters Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers.
The biggest task for Stripling is trying to establish some stability as Tennessee switches from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 alignment. Stripling is the Vols' sixth defensive line coach in as many seasons.
"They've had different coaches for numerous years," Stripling said. "(I want to) give them some continuity, have them kids feel confident in what they're doing and how to express it."
At least Stripling gets to work with some experienced players at his position. Azzanni won't have that luxury, but he looks forward to the challenge.
"The kids are excited to kind of step up and show what they can do a little bit," Azzanni said. "It's a bunch of no-names, which is great. I might even nickname them that."