As the Tennessee football team turns the page from Week 1 of fall camp, the Volunteers are still trying to find the level of consistency in the passing game that's been missing since head coach Butch Jones came over.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs reportedly has been sharper, but with the influx of so many talented but inexperienced youngsters into the receiving corps, there have been too many balls on the ground, Jones told the Knoxville News Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak.
Those first-year Vols have drawn their share of praise thus far since arriving on campus, but most of the encouraging words about UT pass-catchers have been reserved for sophomore Preston Williams and especially junior Josh Malone:
Williams' good vibes are carried over from a strong spring, but for Malone—the once highly recruited receiver out of Gallatin, Tennessee—the strong start is a hope that he can live up to his massive billing.
It's impossible and inaccurate to say Malone has been a bust thus far, especially after he led the team with 31 catches for 405 yards a season ago, but he has flown shy of expectations. His spring, however, has been steady.
That has folks excited.
"It's consistency overall in everything," Jones told Dopirak. "He wants to do it, and he'll do it. I've been proud of him. When a person is driven like he is and wants to do it, usually the results come as well. He's very grounded. He just wants to be the best he can possibly be. I love that in him. I love coaching him."
If Malone can be the bell cow in the passing game that Marquez North always promised to be but never fulfilled, the Vols can take an impressive step forward offensively. If that happens and Williams can stretch the field, Dobbs may have a pair of dependable targets.
But the "ifs" don't win football games. The Vols know it, and Malone knows it. One solid, steady week in camp is nice, but it doesn't mean much until the games start.
Now, maybe Malone feels the sense of urgency to be an alpha receiver, fight for every ball and work hard on every rep. If he does, it'll show in his stats because of his immense talent. He told GoVols247's John Brice having Williams performing so well helps.
"We push each other every day," Malone said. "We compete with each other every day in everything we do. We always try to outperform each other so we always have something on each other."
Tennessee's offensive line went from system mismatch in Jones' first year in Knoxville to a massive deficiency in '14 to a nice surprise a season ago.
Now, the unit should be a team strength, deep and talented. But the Vols would still love a little more quality of depth at offensive tackle. Even so, they've got three quality players who are pushing each other, and Jones noted this week neither job is locked down.
Three isn't a lot in the rugged SEC, but it's better than in the previous two seasons when the Vols had to insert a walk-on to start one year and a converted interior lineman the other. Those guys—Jacob Gilliam and Kyler Kerbyson—wound up being nice players for UT.
But, this season, the Vols could have some elite talent holding down the edges of the line. They just need for sophomore Chance Hall, redshirt freshman Drew Richmond and redshirt junior Brett Kendrick to step up. While a lot of folks maybe had Hall and Richmond penciled in, the rise of Kendrick makes things interesting.
The competition is great for all.
After having a great summer, Richmond is off to a strong start in drills. But Kendrick began 2015 as a starter at right tackle before getting hurt and being replaced by Hall from the Georgia game through the remainder of the season. With Hall injured this spring, Kendrick shined in increased reps.
That means the Vols have three capable bodies out there, and freshmen Marcus Tatum, Nathan Niehaus and Ryan Johnson reportedly have shown flashes, too, though UT likely would move one of its many quality guards outside if it had to go deeper into the bench.
Senior guard Dylan Wiesman noted to the Daily Times' Austin Bornheim just how much different things are now than they were when he arrived.
“When I first got here, you pretty much knew who the starting guy was going to be early on,” Wiesman said. “Now we have talent all over the board, and every day you have to go out there and prove yourself and earn your position.”
The word from Hurd
Vols junior running back Jalen Hurd doesn't usually talk that much to the media, which may be a reason he isn't as widely discussed as Georgia's Nick Chubb or LSU's Leonard Fournette.
The bottom line, though, is Hurd is entering his third (and likely final) season in Knoxville needing just 892 rushing yards to surpass Travis Henry as the Vols' all-time leading rusher.
Jones is being extra cautious with Hurd this spring, managing his workload with a green no-contact jersey though the running back isn't injured. He knows what kind of wear and tear Hurd will experience this season, and there's nothing left to prove on the practice field.
Still, Hurd says a lot with little when asked about where he ranks in the SEC pecking order. It's obvious to see he plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Brice shared some of the junior's words:
It's not hard to see why Hurd is curt when asked about SEC runners. After all, he's accomplished all his accolades via a tougher road. His freshman season, Tennessee's offensive line was downright awful. Also, Hurd has dealt with naysayers throughout his career who said he was too tall to play running back.
The Vols probably wouldn't trade their workhorse for anybody. His commitment in Jones' first full class signified a program's return to the national conversation, and all he's done since arriving on campus is live up to his massive hype.
What will he do for an encore? We'll have to find out this year, but Jones isn't taking any chances of losing him in practice. Hurd has personal goals, but he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker he has a much bigger one.
"Now that [the rushing record is] reachable and, you know, you can see it, I definitely want to do it," Hurd said. "That’s a goal of mine. But obviously the biggest goal for me is just to help get my team a national championship."
Vols looking for more on defense
With the way Jones has recruited on Rocky Top, the Vols have a ton of depth in a lot of areas. That's no different on defense, and it should excite Tennessee fans that a veteran, vaunted defensive coordinator like Bob Shoop doesn't shy away from expectations.
As a matter of fact, he embraces them.
The Vols have a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and Shoop knows it's his job to manage it, diversify it and maximize it. The defensive mastermind has a plan in place to play a lot of different packages, show opponents many different looks and get as many as 22-25 defenders on the field throughout a game.
UT didn't rotate as many players last year as some teams, and that hurt them late in games. Jones told VolQuest.com's Brent Hubbs it's vital the Vols commit to getting more guys ready to play on that side of the ball:
I do think it's important we play more players on defense. The game has changed a little bit with the number of snaps you have to play on defense. I think it keeps the morale up. I think it gives each other roles. Now, they have to earn those roles. But I think when you are able to play more people it keeps you fresher in the fourth quarter. It helps players development.
There are high expectations on Rocky Top this year, and athletic director Dave Hart echoed that to Hubbs this week when he noted, "Football is healthy again."
The hype is big everywhere, too. Not only was UT ranked 10th in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, there are many folks around Knoxville who believe the Vols are set up to do well for a while.
Knoxville News Sentinel longtime columnist John Adams said of the Vols: "Not only are the Vols a consensus favorite to win the SEC East, they also are in position to take charge of the division for several years. That speaks volumes for the state of the division as well as the Tennessee program."
According to Dopirak:
Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Austin Smith, wide receiver Jauan Jennings, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive backs D.J. Henderson and Micah Abernathy began practice in green no-contact jerseys. Reeves-Maybin, Smith and Jennings are recovering from injuries suffered in the spring. Hurd, the Vols workhorse running back, generally has his practice contact limited because of the wear and tear he goes through during the season.
Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle actually did some limited work in pads this week as he tries to work his way back from a season-ending lower leg injury a season ago.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.