Tennessee junior Alton "Pig" Howard, the Vols' second-leading receiver in 2013 and an important piece to next year's offense, will reportedly miss spring practice due to unspecified personal reasons, and his long-term future with the team is in doubt.
Evan Woodbery of the Knoxville News Sentinel cited a source close to the program, who requested anonymity as the news has not yet been made official:
Junior receiver Alton “Pig” Howard won’t participate in Tennessee’s spring practice period that begins on Friday, a source close to the the program told the News Sentinel.
The source, who requested anonymity because the news had not yet been officially announced, said Howard has been away from the team due to “personal reasons” and his long-term future with the Vols had not yet been decided.
Howard finished 2013 with team highs in receptions (44) and receiving touchdowns (3), checking in second on the team behind freshman Marquez North with 388 receiving yards.
Despite the inconsistent play under center, he made himself available in short, open spaces and became a reliable checkdown option for Justin Worley, Josh Dobbs and/or Nathan Peterman.
The best games of Howard's season came against quality competition, too. He had four catches for 75 yards against Florida, eight catches for 33 yards and a touchdown in the upset win over South Carolina and 11 catches for 89 yards against Missouri.
He also had four catches for 70 yards and 46 rushing yards in the near-upset of Georgia, but his fumble on the goal line in overtime, which flew out of the end zone for a touchback, basically iced the game for the Bulldogs:
Despite that one, ugly low point, Howard is a big part of the Tennessee offense, so a prolonged or permanent absence would cripple the team. With tenured offensive linemen such as Tiny Richardson, Ja'wuan James and James Stone all gone, whoever plays quarterback could use his ability to get open on quick, underneath routes.
If Howard does eventually return to the team, however, his absence from spring ball might be a blessing in disguise. A pair of 4-star freshman receivers, Josh Malone and Von Pearson, both enrolled early and will now seen an expanded role in March and April practices.
Between them, North, Jason Croom, Johnathon Johnson and Josh Smith, the Vols have enough young receivers to weather the storm of this loss. Receiver is not a position of need.
Still, Howard was one of the team's most exciting young athletes, and it always hurts to lose one of your best contributors—no matter the reason. If nothing else, his absence puts a damper on the Tennessee spring game, which is scheduled for April 12.
We'll keep you posted as updates become available.