Here's what we know for sure about Tennessee's wide receivers: Josh Dobbs loves Pig Howard.
In 2013 Howard caught 11 passes in Dobbs' first start at Missouri. Last year Howard averaged 3.7 catches per game with Justin Worley at the helm, but 4.6 catches per game once Dobbs took over. Though he only caught one touchdown pass last season, Pig Howard could become Tennessee's third leading receiver all-time with another big fall.
Tennessee's diminutive deuce will get open and be a big factor in the slot, one of the most certain pieces of a potentially explosive Vol offense. The other options - and there are lots of them - are still a bit heavy on potential and a bit light on consistent productivity.
The Vols could get by on a group effort, perhaps. It happened last year: after Howard's 54 receptions led the way, six other players caught between 21-38 passes. But wouldn't this offense, even with a faster tempo and plenty of snaps available, be better served if a number one and number two option clearly identified themselves at the outside receiver positions?
Marquez North remains the most likely number one option, though injuries cut both his freshman and sophomore seasons short. Before getting hurt against Vanderbilt in 2013 (and subsequently erasing any sense of Tennessee's offense that night) North caught 37 passes for 494 yards as a true freshman, including three for 102 against South Carolina, a game Tennessee simply does not win without that effort. In the first eight games last year he caught 30 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns. If those per game numbers play out over the course of a healthy season, North would be a 50 catch/600 yard player.
I don't know if any player in this offense is going to have a season like Justin Hunter in 2012 (73 for 1,083); Da'Rick Rogers' numbers in 2011 (67 for 1,040) were the byproduct of being the only option. Only one wide receiver put up those kind of numbers during Butch Jones' tenure at Cincinnati, when Armon Binns caught 75 passes for 1,101 yards in 2010. So while North remains the most likely option to be that number one guy, I don't know if we will see a huge gap between his numbers and the number two outside option.
North is the presumptive favorite, but who else will hear their name called in the starting lineup on September 5 along with Pig and Marquez?
Von Pearson might have been the best choice, but he remains under indefinite suspension as allegations of sexual assault from April continue to be investigated. Pearson sprained an ankle in the Arkansas State game last season, sat the next two weeks, and finished with 38 catches for 393 yards and five touchdowns playing at less than 100%. He had seven catches for 75 yards in the Taxslayer Bowl.
Josh Smith was also injured early last season and did not return. Smith is an interesting case in the sense that 21 of his 22 career catches came in games started by Justin Worley. He was injured long before Dobbs got the call last year, but caught just one pass in Dobbs' four starts in 2013. Smith did beat out many of the other names on this list for a starting spot early last fall, catching 10 passes for 135 yards and a score in three games before going down at Oklahoma.
Jason Croom became more of an end zone target for the Vols last year. Take away his six catches for 76 yards against Chattanooga, and Croom caught only 15 passes last year. But four of them went for scores, including the big one in the final seconds of regulation at South Carolina. His 6'5" frame should continue to make him a strong option in the red zone.
And then there's Josh Malone, who was perhaps unfairly burdened not just with five-star expectations, but also by playing one year after Marquez North was so good as a true freshman. Malone struggled with some combination of the transition from Worley to Dobbs and the freshman wall in general, catching 19 passes in the first seven games but only four the rest of the way home. He didn't really drop any more passes than you'd expect from a freshman, but the timing of his drops was especially brutal, most notably against Florida and Missouri. How Malone responds as a sophomore will be interesting to watch this fall.
Finally, add in true freshman Preston Williams. Right now all we have to go on is name dropping during summer workouts, but Williams' name has been on the floor plenty. At 6'4" he joins Marquez North as the second tallest receiver on the team behind Croom, but his frame will be much leaner early on at only 180 lbs. Because of all the names above him, he doesn't have to show up and be 2013 Marquez North and no one should panic if he doesn't end up with a lot of stats this fall. But I also wouldn't rule out his name as a possibility to rise to the top of this crowded field and make meaningful contributions in this offense this fall.
The Vols want to play fast, and as such there should be plenty of opportunities for many if not all of these guys. But for the sake of consistency, I think Tennessee will be even better offensively if one or two of these names can separate themselves from the pack. If the Vols can line up on third down with three proven options who must all be accounted for defensively, preventing teams from blanketing North or Howard or hopefully both, Tennessee's chances for success in 2015 go up even more.