Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith broke out with one of the most productive camps of any player on the Volunteers roster. Yet when UT released its official depth chart Monday, Smith's name was absent from the starting lineup.
That distinction belonged to the trio of Marquez North, Pig Howard and Von Pearson.
Smith will still play plenty, but if his camp performance failing to yield first-team reps isn't a testament to Tennessee's depth of able options at receiver, nothing is.
Head coach Butch Jones can throw waves of talented targets at opponents. It's going to be such a drastic mismatch for the Aggies' revamped secondary, the Vols will ride that advantage to a season-opening win.
All the ingredients are present for UT's young receivers to get off to a rousing start that could build the swagger necessary to grow into a special group.
USU coach Matt Wells must replace four defensive backs who were invited to NFL camps, led by fourth-round selection Nevin Lawson. Also gone are Quinton Byrd, Tay Glover-Wright and Maurice Alexander.
Even though the Aggies have enough promising players throughout their roster to present UT a major test, the secondary is one of their biggest concerns, along with the offensive line.
Seeing the size and athleticism of Tennessee's receivers understandably makes Wells shudder.
"I look at the secondary and know that we lost three guys to the NFL and that scares the heck out of me," Wells said at his weekly press conference Monday, according to USU's official website. "We've got good, talented players, but they haven't done it yet."
Jones could echo those same words about his receivers too, but that doesn't change the fact that they've got immense ability and were hotly recruited. The two-deep depth chart is a veritable stable of stars—23 combined, according to the 247 Composite rankings.
|The Recruiting Rankings of Tennessee's Two-Deep Receiving Corps|
|Name||Height/Weight||Star Rating||Positional Rank|
|Marquez North||6'4", 221||4 stars||No. 10|
|Von Pearson||6'3", 183||4 stars||No. 2 JUCO WR|
|Pig Howard||5'8", 187||4 stars||No. 36|
|Jason Croom||6'5", 243||4 stars||No. 31|
|Josh Malone||6'3", 204||4 stars||No. 5|
|Josh Smith||6'1", 200||3 stars||No. 193|
They're also sneaky experienced, much more so than Utah State's secondary.
A season ago, UT took some serious lumps at receiver as freshmen were thrust into action before they were ready. Now, the Vols return nearly 83 percent of its receptions from a season ago.
That was boosted even more when Howard returned to the team after a bizarre hiatus and worked his way back to a starting spot. Senior quarterback Justin Worley said Howard is a "tremendous asset" to UT's passing game.
Add talented prospects Pearson, Malone and Vic Wharton into the fold, and that lineup has the potential to be too much for some of the nation's best defenses to handle, much less one that has to replace as much talent as the Aggies.
That's not even to mention UT's talented tight ends. Worley looks around him and feels comfortable because of a considerable security blanket.
A couple of years ago, Utah State sophomore cornerback Daniel Gray was part of Tennessee's young talent. He also was forced into action as a freshman and was consistently torched throughout his one season in Knoxville, most notably in his lone start versus Troy.
After transferring to USU, Gray returns to Neyland Stadium to anchor an inexperienced group of Aggies defensive backs.
Some of Gray's former teammates such as recently graduated defensive end Corey Miller is a little more confident in Sunday night because of it.
If Worley is sharp, there's little reason to believe the Vols can't orchestrate an air assault.
The average height of the Aggies cornerbacks listed in their two-deep roster is 5'10", which isn't bad at all. But they still give up an average of four inches to the six receivers in UT's two-deep.
That talent isn't lost on Wells, who heaped even more praise on Tennessee's receivers, which is normally reserved for impressed coaches at weekly teleconferences.
Tennessee is known as 'Wide Receiver University' and I don't think I'd argue that. They have 11 first-round draft picks in the last 40 years at wide receiver. That's unbelievable. There may be four more on this roster. We talk about Marquez North. Von Pearson is a very talented slot, similar to [USU receiver] Jojo Natson. Josh Malone, it goes without saying is tremendously talented. He had 180-some yards in the spring game with three touchdowns. He lit it up, unstoppable. The guy is Mr. Tennessee Football. That's a big time honor in a very good state of high school football.
With that size and talent, throwing in SEC speed and athleticism, Tennessee's receivers are going to be too hard to handle.
While USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton will certainly lead his team to some points, UT's receivers will enable the Vols to match scores in a shootout.
Once the fourth quarter rolls around, Tennessee's superior talent, the cross-country trip for the Aggies and the humidity on a late-August Knoxville night will be the difference.
A new chapter of Wide Receiver U has begun, and the nation is about to see the future of the position is in good hands on Rocky Top.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. Quotes and observations were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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