Despite depth concerns, Tennessee receivers stand out


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- When Butch Jones talks about his success on the recruiting trail, he's cautious. They're still so young, he says. They're gaining experience, but it can't come fast enough for Jones and his staff at Tennessee.

But for all the areas where the Vols need to make progress, there's one position group that seems to have already arrived: wide receiver.

Granted, there are serious depth concerns at the position. Jones, when asked, lamented that he had only five healthy scholarship receivers this spring. It makes it tough on him to practice and create a chemistry in the passing game.

But while that might cause indigestion for Jones, it does little to change the fact that the Vols could boast the best lineup of receivers in the SEC this season. They've flown largely under the radar but possess what every coach covets: talent and experience.

"They can do a lot," said junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs. "Since I've gotten here, we haven't graduated a receiver, which is crazy. So it's definitely a room that has a lot of depth, a lot of knowledge of the game and a lot of experience. It shows."

Alton "Pig" Howard, who led the team with 54 receptions, is back. So is Von Pearson, who led all Vols with five receiving touchdowns, and Marquez North, who was injured for much of last season but is only a year removed from a freshman season in which he caught 38 passes and was named to the Freshman All-SEC team. That's not to mention Josh Malone. The former top recruit in the state of Tennessee, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, played in all 13 games and had six starts as a freshman last season. He had 23 catches in 2014 and is running with the second-team offense this spring.

While Alabama is looking for a first, second and third receiver on its depth chart this spring, the Vols know what they're working with, one through four. Jones' goal is to be nine-deep at every position, but there are a lot of coaches across the league who would trade a few backups for a front-line starter right now.

"Even though we've had two great recruiting classes, you're not able to fix all your deficiencies on one or two recruiting classes," said Jones, ever the voice of reason. "It takes a solid four or five recruiting classes to get the competitive depth you need in every single position group. It's a process."

While Jones is still a few years away from being where he wants to be in terms of numbers, the clock is ticking. Malone still has time in front of him. He and sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf have a bright future. But Howard and Pearson are seniors and North is draft-eligible after this season.

With so many quality starters already on the roster, we can forget talking about recruiting. Tennessee has one of the best groups of receivers right now.