KNOXVILLE - After Tennessee finished Thursday morning's practice with only four healthy scholarship receivers, all Zach Azzanni could do was shake his head and count them on his hand.
Any hints of progress this spring for the young, unproven group has been stunted by a rough practice much like Thursday's session.
The period between the Volunteers' wideouts and defensive backs was littered with drops, a recurring problem for Azzanni's group this spring, and though some growing pains were expected for a group replacing a large chunk of production from last season, Azzanni admitted it's been frustrating.
"I'm disappointed in some of the progress we've made," he said. "We take two steps forward, take a step back, take two steps forward, take a step back. The injuries haven't helped. I haven't been able to settle guy into a position. Now this guy's down, so I've got to move this guy over here and this guy over here. I've been disappointed, but [it's] also to be expected."
Jason Croom was the latest to get hurt, suffering a hamstring injury during Thursday's practice. Jacob Carter (sprained ankle), Paul Harris (hamstring) and Vincent Dallas (undisclosed) have missed both practice this week. Azzanni was unsure of the severity of Croom's injury, but based on his comments none of the problems appear to be severe.
The shorthanded group is now down to Pig Howard, Devrin Young, Cody Blanc, Drae Bowles and a number of walk-ons.
"We'll get them back," Azzanni said, "and when we do, we'll keep coaching them, but they're missing valuable time."
Though he gave a disclaimer of his own "very high standards," Azzanni said none of his receivers have exceeded his expectations.
"No, not yet," he added. "There's some guys working and doing a good job. Is there any guy that I'm wowed by? Not yet."
Since he garnered some praise, Blanc has struggled with dropped passes, including another one on a corner route during a team period on Thursday.
Croom made some noise last week with his play, and even though the 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman has stood out the most among the receiving corps, he hit a hiccup earlier this week.
"He had a very, very poor practice Tuesday, probably his worst of the season," Azzanni said. "It bothered him. It bothers him. We got on him pretty good, and he came back and responded better today. The thing about Jason is that he really, really does care.
"He's a high-rep guy. He needs a lot of reps. He can't just go out there and do it right off the bat when I draw it on the board. He needs reps, and he's getting better. He needs to see himself do it, so he's improving little by little in all the different areas."
Carter, Dallas and Howard are the only three receivers who caught passes last season, and the trio managed to combine for only 30 catches, 329 yards and three touchdowns playing behind early NFL draft entries Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and graduated senior Zach Rogers.
The Vols' 2012 signing class included Harris, who enrolled in January, along with MarQuez North, Ryan Jenkins and Josh Smith, three players expected to arrive in the summer.
"I walked into a situation where, let's be honest, there's three guys that should be jogging on that field that aren't here anymore," Azzanni said. "Take that with Cody Blanc, who was a safety in high school, Devrin Young was a running back until two months ago and all those things. Jacob Carter was a walk-on, and Jason Croom had shoulder surgery and hadn't played for a whole year.
"There's a lot of things you could point to. They're not excuses, but they're reality. That's what it is right now."
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 ...