KNOXVILLE — Jason Croom wants just one label.
For the jumbo Tennessee receiver, just being a downfield threat or a reliable over-the-middle target just isn't good enough.
"I want to be everything," the redshirt freshman said when asked to pigeonhole himself after the Volunteers' practice Tuesday morning.
At his recent rate, he might reach that level sooner rather than later.
Croom had a good practice before the Vols broke for spring break and delivered an even better performance when the Vols returned from a 10-day layoff.
"The one individual who's really, really starting to impress me right now is Jason Croom," new Vols coach Butch Jones said. "... I could tell that he got in his playbook, he ran over break and I really liked the way he approached practice today. He's a big 6-foot-4, 225-pound individual, and he needs to play like that.
"I really saw some glimpses today, and I'm very encouraged by what I saw with him."
A hamstring injury slowed Croom during preseason camp last August, and after he appeared in three games, the Norcross (Ga.) High School product underwent shoulder surgery in October.
"Every practice I feel like I've gotten better," said the former four-star prospect. "Right before we went out to spring break I had a good practice, and what I told my coach when I was coming back, I was thinking about my last practice and how I was going to build on that. I had one of my best ones [today]."
Receiver is an obvious position of concern for Tennessee, and Jones noted at least twice during his post-practice meeting with reporters a need for the unit to step up collectively.
"We've put them in some negative and in some adverse situations," he said. "The way a receiver runs a route is his body language. He's communicating verbally through their body language of when they're coming out of their breaking points, how you stick routes, how you accelerate at the top end of your routes, and I didn't really see that from our receivers today.
"Our receivers have to step up, and they have to have a big day on Thursday and they've got to keep grinding. We ask a lot of them, but that's the standard and the expectation by which we're going to play, and we're not changing. I see progress, but not as much as we would like, and that's pretty common when you're installing the package that we're installing."
Cody Blanc showed some good things earlier this spring, and now Croom is standing out.
"As a receiver I want to be that playmaker," he said. "My personal goal is just to stay healthy, because that was a problem last year. We don't have any big names, and everybody's trying to beat out [each other]. We all want to be playmakers, but no one has stepped up yet, as my coach says.
"I'm trying to take a further step each practice."
While the Vols were in a special teams period Tuesday, linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive coordinator John Jancek met on the defensive field for some one-on-one work.
Tennessee's leading tackler last season said it's been the routine for every practice this spring, though the rising junior was unable to recall any similar scenario from his career.
"I'm not on any of the special teams [so] I go get a little one-on-one work with Coach Jancek, and I like doing that," Johnson said. "It just helps me get better as a player. It first happened pretty much the very first day of practice, and ... I just went over there ready to work, but in my head I was thinking, 'This is pretty cool.'"
The coaches have challenged Johnson this spring to add disruptive plays and turnovers to his defensive arsenal. They have not given him every first-team rep.
"It's more than tackles," he acknowledged. "I know that's what I'm working on myself, just trying to work on stripping balls and pass disruptions and interceptions. They're pushing me a lot.
"I feel like I've responded well. I understand I just only had a only bunch of tackles and I didn't have that much other stats. I'm glad they're pushing me that way."
Quarterback Justin Worley is targeting one area of his game in Tennessee's remaining seven practices.
"One of our core values at the quarterback position is leadership," he said. "Just being able to step up a little more and be a little bit more vocal and once we get some momentum, keep it going with the guys. That's something I'm going to try to work on the rest of spring practice."
Jones said he hasn't seen any noticeable separation in the Vols' spring quarterback battle between Worley and Nathan Peterman.
Tailback Marlin Lane missed Tuesday's practice while tending to a family situation.
"He's had some health issues within his family," Jones said, "and he wanted to be there for them."
Jones said Lane, who's been splitting first-team tailback reps with Rajion Neal, would return to Knoxville on Tuesday night.
Freshman receiver Paul Harris was back in his customary No. 1 jersey after wearing No. 91 as a motivational ploy by the coaches in Tennessee's last practice. ... Demarre Kitt, a four-star receiver prospect from Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek High School, watched Tuesday's practice. ... Tennessee announced that Joe Scogin, currently the associate athletic director for academic services at Missouri, would take over in May as the director of the Thornton Student Life Center, the university's hub for student-athlete academic services. ... Transferring Notre Dame quarterback Gunner Kiel, the former five-star prospect who committed to Indiana and LSU before signing with the Irish last year, named Tennessee as a possible option, according to an ESPN report.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...