Tennessee freshman wide receiver Marquez North stood on the brink of stardom all throughout his first year in Knoxville, but he never crossed the threshold.
He'll take that next step in 2014.
Once head coach Butch Jones settles on a starting quarterback this spring, the first order of business will be getting him on the same page with the 6'4", 215-pound prototypical target.
Blessed with ideal size and speed, North was a starter from Day One in Knoxville. He improved throughout the season, even in an inconsistent offense. UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian praised North's growing grasp of the offense to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required):
Marquez is one of those individuals…who really has made great strides throughout the course of the season. It's visible from little things like his breaking points. It starts with him and his desire to be the best he can be. He's very driven and very hard on himself when he makes a mistake. He's hard on himself when he doesn't perform a technique to his standard. It's good to see. He's a very conscientious guy, and I think in the long run that's going to pay off for him.
That experience and attention to detail will pay huge dividends as a sophomore. Moving forward, North has to become more consistent in his route running and do a better job fighting off blocks and getting open.
If he does that, he'll be great. He's already generating a crazy amount of buzz around Knoxville.
No matter how college-ready a receiver is, there is always a learning curve, and North certainly experienced one. Important traits such as route running and blocking were not innate. After all, he was mostly a running back as a high school senior.
Still, North amassed 496 yards on 38 catches in a year where UT shuffled three starting quarterbacks, struggled to find quality receiving depth and generally bumbled around on offense.
He appeared right on the cusp of breaking out through the meat of the Vols' schedule with 23 catches for 362 yards and a touchdown during a five-game stretch against Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn.
The nation took notice during the South Carolina game when he made a remarkable, one-handed grab to set up the game-winning field goal.
But his season was stunted by an ankle injury that allowed him to play only sparingly against Vanderbilt, catching one ball for two yards, before sitting out in the finale against Kentucky.
Despite the ups and downs, wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni noted in the GoVols247 article linked above how excited he is about North's potential:
He never played wide out. I mean, they put him on the edge and they said, "Run real fast." That was about the extent of his wide receiver play. Never ran a route, never did any of that stuff.
…I keep dreaming about two or three years from now when [North and fellow freshman Josh Smith are] old, experienced guys jogging out there. It’ll be fun to watch their maturation through these next couple of years even more and more.
Another season in Bajakian's system will be North's biggest ally, but there are other, external elements that will prove just as important in his surge toward stardom.
First, Tennessee not changing quarterbacks every time the wind changes will help. North was getting comfortable with Justin Worley when the junior was lost for the season against Alabama. It took some time for him to develop the same rapport with freshman Joshua Dobbs.
It's important—for North as well as the rest of the team—that Jones picks a horse and rides him as long as he can at quarterback.
Also, North drew the vast majority of attention from opposing defenses, simply because the Vols had no other receiving threats.
That won't be the case in 2014. The Vols already have commitments from a potentially electrifying junior college weapon in Von Pearson and another extremely polished high school receiver with in-state star Josh Malone.
The success of Jones' offense also hinges on having a quality tight end—a commodity the Vols did not possess this season. The freshman duo of Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf are expected to remedy that issue.
All four new, highly anticipated targets are already on campus as early enrollees, and their development is crucial. They'll have nearly nine months of college under their belts before 2014's kickoff.
Having all that talent around North can't do anything but lessen the attention on him, giving him more opportunities to make plays.
That's an exciting proposition for UT fans and a scary one for opposing defenses. Despite all the limitations in 2013, he still was selected on Freshman All-America teams by 247Sports, College Football News and Athlon, as well as making freshman All-SEC.
That was just a glimpse into greatness. The best from North is yet to come.
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