KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's young group of wide receivers hit its first wall of preseason training camp last week.
After a two-practice Monday kicked off a stretch of 10 practices in eight days, the Volunteers know another wall might be just around the corner.
And Zach Azzanni is navigating the receivers through those obstacles.
"We run, and we run a lot," the receivers coach said after Monday morning's practice. "I know that, and I try and pull back as much as I can, but at the same time it's a fine line. I also need them to play. They hit a little bit of a wall, but I've got to push them through it. They've got to love the grind.
"If I go out there and I'm dull, they're going to be dull, so that's why you don't ever see me dull out there. I'm running around all over the place, and they've got to feed off me. I told them the other day, 'When the wall comes, are you going to run into it, or are you going to run through it?' We've got to run through it right now."
The handful of returning receivers got a taste of the workload during spring practice, but the pace of the first week of a college practice certainly was a shock to freshmen such as Marquez North, Josh Smith and Ryan Jenkins, a trio who have received first-team work this preseason. Azzanni was upbeat about his unit last week, but there's still considerable inconsistency.
For example: Jenkins drew Azzanni's wrath during an 11-on-11 team period last week, but Monday morning he caught two touchdown passes during 7-on-7 red-zone work.
Pig Howard, Azzanni said, "started off like gangbusters" in camp before some "doldrum practices" last week, including one day when he dropped a couple of passes in one team period -- one in the end zone.
"When you're increasing the volume the way we are, the volume of install," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said, "and when you get to a point where there is some weariness with their legs and the routine of camp, it was two steps forward, one step back.
"There was a day or two where we had more mental errors than we've had all camp long, and a lot of that was on day one and day two [of] install, so it's a matter of when we throw a lot at them, being able to retain what we've done in the past and being able to fight through the adversity of multiple practices in a row."
Coaches challenged the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Howard in particular to improve his conditioning throughout spring, and he said he made that a focus during summer workouts.
"This tempo is something that you have to prepare for," the speedy sophomore said last week. "I mean, it's a grind, and usually as a receiver and a football player, people are not used to going full speed four plays in a row. This is something that you've got to repeat over and over and get your mind ready for."
With fatigue comes mental mistakes, like North jumping early to draw a false-start penalty last week, and sloppy routes, which tends to create mistakes, disrupt timing and lead to dropped passes.
Head coach Butch Jones was unhappy with the drops in Saturday night's scrimmage, but Azzanni said he didn't leave the session frustrated. He saw some things he liked, particularly his group's great attitude, positive body language and North's two knockdown blocks on Rajion Neal's 98-yard touchdown sprint.
"That's progress, those things," he said. "I thought they communicated well, and they were helping each other, so I was pleased. We took a step in the right direction.
"What you've got to realize right now is it's not going to be a giant leap. I would love for it to be. It's just not. It's going to be chipping away, brick by brick, day by day, drill by drill with these young guys, and I've got to understand that. I have no veterans in my group that'll pull anyone aside and say, 'Here's how you do it.' None of them have played, so they're all kind of looking at me and each other, so it's got to be me."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...