It's no secret that Tennessee has struggled to throw the ball in the first half of this season. Since at least week four, we've been wondering who deserves the blame, and while the percentages may be unclear, there's certainly plenty to go around. But while the play-calling has been roundly criticized and the offensive identity questioned, the offensive line worries have been done to death for a year and a half, and we've discussed Dobbs' best and Dobbs' weaknesses, we've spent relatively little time focusing on the receivers.
Theoretically, Tennessee has a ton of talent in the receiving corps. And for the entire summer and probably the first month of the season, the assumption from Vols fans has seemed to be that if Mike DeBord calls passes and Josh Dobbs puts them on target, production will come. But after 2.5 years since the departure of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and no real breakthroughs in the passing game, it's time to starting asking where that production is coming from. Does Tennessee have a reliable target? Is there a player that can step-up and take the mantle of go-to receiver, or are the Vols going to continue to mix and match and hope that two catches a game from six different receivers will be enough to keep the offense moving? Let's take a look.
POTENTIAL STAR RECEIVERS
While Preston Williams has some potential for the future, there are two natural wideouts who Tennessee fans could've reasonably expected to break into stardom this season: Marquez North and Josh Malone. In fact, the conversation at receiver has begun with North for three years now. Ever since. . . well, this, an unbelievable catch that capped off a 100-yard performance (with Justin Worley throwing!) and carried the Vols to victory over a top five South Carolina team, North has been looked to as the Vols' star. And he has all the tools to be a star. And yet last season, he had a catch rate of just 56.6% and just 6.0 yards per target. He's been fighting injuries so far this fall, but his performance has gotten even worse, with a catch rate well under 50% and just 3.5 yards per target.
Maybe North works himself back to health over the bye week, and maybe a healthy North finally lives up to his potential and becomes a star. But halfway through his junior year, it's completely reasonable to question whether he will ever star in a Tennessee uniform, and with his performance so far this year, it's hard to count on him being a difference maker down the stretch.
So there's his partner, one year younger, in Malone, who actually has taken a step forward this year. Last year Malone caught just 50% of the passes thrown his way and had just 5.0 yards per target, but this year he leads the team in catches with 17 and has slightly improved his catch rate to 58.6% and his yards per target to 5.8. Better, without a doubt, but those aren't star receiver numbers. Malone is steadily improving, but there's no sign that a breakout is near on the horizon. So what does the rest of the bunch look like.
SHORT GAME TARGETS
The Tennessee passing offense has focused on the short game this year, opting for high percentage passes that get the ball into the receivers' hands and let them make plays. And after running back Alvin Kamara, the two targets that most fit this mold are Von Pearson and Jauan Jennings. Jennings is a freshman who starred as a high school quarterback who made plays with his legs, so it makes sense to get him some easy catches and let him make plays with the ball in his hands. And Pearson was Tennessee's most electrifying player in 2014, consistently turning short catches into big plays.
Actually, if you'd asked me going into the season who Tennessee's best receiver was, I'd have said Von Pearson. Despite missing a few games with injury, Pearson was second on the team in catches (behind Pig Howard) in 2014, and he led all players with at least 20 targets in both catch rate (at a sterling 82.6%) and yards per target (with 8.5). But this year, Pearson has fallen off the map. He's still made some catches, but his hands have gotten less reliable, as he's sporting a catch rate of just 50% through six games. And while he's averaging 14 yards per catch, only eight catches on the year have him struggling to make an impact on the offense. Pearson was both reliable and explosive last season, and his fall is one of the most underrated storylines for Tennessee this season. Perhaps it can be partially attributed to dealing with sexual assault allegations over the summer (he was never charged), but he's dropped passes this year and has yet to find the end zone after five touchdowns in 2014.
And Jennings, while he may ultimately become what Pearson was last season, is still a freshman. His catch rate is a solid 71.4%, and he has a solid 7.1 yards per target, but while he's been relatively reliable, he still has just 100 yards and 0 touchdowns on the season. It's been a good start for him, but not enough to show that he's ready to be a #1 receiver.
THE DEEP THREAT
Preston Williams has been all boom-or-bust this season. The freshman, who is coming off an ACL injury and Clearinghouse issues that kept him out of most of fall camp, has stepped in and immediately become Tennessee's go-to deep threat. As such, his 10.5 yards per target leads Tennessee receivers with at least five targets on the season. But his catch rate of 46.7% leads only Marquez North. Putting those numbers together, we can see that Williams is averaging more than 20 yards per catch, but while he's good for a big play every now and again, he's not yet turned into a reliable target.
THE #1 RECEIVER?
Leaving aside non-receivers and the injured Johnathon Johnson and Jason Croom, we're left with the one player who does a bit of everything and who may be Tennessee's best candidate for a #1 receiver. Josh Smith has been used consistently in the short passing game but has also been Tennessee's best mid-range threat outside of tight end Ethan Wolf. And while Williams is the preferred deep target, Smith has been tried there too. He doesn't have the size and strength of North or Malone or the elusiveness of Pearson, but right now, he might be the best full package. Among receivers with more than five targets, Smith is first with a catch rate of 73.3% (this puts him ahead of Kamara and Jalen Hurd as well, trailing only Ethan Wolf's 83.3% when compared against all pass-catchers). But he isn't another Jacob Carter, who had reliable hands but struggled to get open against SEC competition. Smith is second among receivers with 11 catches (yes, it says something that 1.8 catches per game puts him second among receivers), and his 9.6 yards per target trails only Williams (and Ethan Wolf, who again takes first place if we expand to other pass-catchers). Last season, Smith was leading the team with 9.0 yards per target before going down with an injury, and he's picking up where he left off this season. He's been the most reliable at pass-catcher, he's not doing all his work in the dink-and-dunk game, and last week against Georgia, he came through with a spectacular play when the Vols needed it most.
With the raw physical ability that Marquez North, Josh Malone, and Preston Williams possess, Smith doesn't have the highest upside in the Tennessee receiving corps. Ideally, he's a strong #2 or #3 target in the long run. And you can make a pretty good argument that he's not even the most proven, as Von Pearson's 2014 performance was better and sustained for longer. But right now, if I had to put my money on one player to step up and give the Tennessee offense a go-to target other than Ethan Wolf across the middle, it's Josh Smith.
Who you got?