KNOXVILLE — Your eyes tell you Tennessee receiver Marquez North is not your typical freshman college football player.
His teammates and coaches say he has the maturity and attitude of an upperclassman.
When North plays his first game in Saturday’s season opener against Austin Peay, the Volunteers need the talented 6-foot-4, 215-pounder to play like a seasoned veteran in a receiving corps that lacks one and be a playmaker for an offense searching for some.
“It’s just his ability to come in here as a freshman and manhandle some of the older guys and catch deep passes,” fellow receiver Devrin Young said when asked what’s impressed him most about North this preseason. “His maturity level, you could see that he was at a different point than most freshman that come in here. I’m really excited to see how he produces this year.
“His attitude, when he gets yelled at, he doesn’t get down on himself. He can take correction, and he can take coaching. He picked up the playbook real fast, and overall he’s just built like a junior, I feel like.”
The four-star prospect, ranked 37th and 155th nationally according to Rivals.com and 247sports.com, respectively, was the highest-rated signee in Tennessee’s 2013 class. North took an unofficial visit to Knoxville for last season’s Florida game and took his official visit for the Vols’ loss to Alabama.
Before he left for the same position at Florida State, Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham, the one holdover from the staff in place when North took those visits, helped land North, who picked the Vols over the home-state North Carolina Tar Heels just a week before signing day.
“He’s a big kid,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said, recalling meeting the receiver during one of his visits. “He was a little quiet then, but coach was telling us this guy can help us. Seeing him on campus then, and even the first running things [during summer workouts] … some freshmen come in, and you can kind of tell they’re freshmen.
“But with Marquez, he was up at the front of the races, the front of the running and the front of lifting, too. He’s a really strong guy, too. From the very start of it, I’ve been impressed with Marquez, and it hasn’t changed at all.”
As a senior at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North had more rushing attempts (45) than receptions (20). He took handoffs either as a running back in the shotgun, as a wildcat quarterback or on jet sweeps and end arounds. His natural athleticism is clear, and the Vols’ coaches have tried to fine-tune and polish his skills as a wideout.
“The biggest thing for a freshman is to take some deep breaths and refocus and keep going, because they keep getting drilled from every direction as far as the amount of install, coaches on them, this schedule’s rigorous, our pace is rigorous,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “He’s really done that.
“He’s a coachable kid. That’s what really is intriguing about him. That’s why I know his game will get better and better.”
After joining Tennessee’s staff, Azzanni said he recruited North “really, really hard — really hard, I mean hard.” He developed a strong relationship with North and his mother, father and sister. The former Florida assistant knew Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri from his days as the coach at Everglades High School outside of Miami, a relationship went back a decade and helped Azzanni’s efforts to bring North to Tennessee.
“He told me the real deal on Marquez: here’s how he practices, here’s what he does in his free time and here’s what I’ve seen the last however many years I’ve been with him,” Azzanni said. “I had a pretty good idea of his mental makeup before we got him. I never try and put expectations on a freshmen because they’re freshmen.
“They’ve kind of got to come in and kind of prove it day to day what they can do. Then when you hit that wall about practice 12 or 13, then you really find out about them. So far he’s done a great job.”
In all likelihood, North will be on the field for Tennessee’s first offensive snap of the season. Azzanni said he’s tried to remain even-keeled about the freshman’s performance. Multiple players, both offensive and defensive, have singled him out for his talent and play this month.
“That boy is big, and he’s fast,” said receiver Jason Croom. “He’s got some huge hands, and he can make plays. He’s a good player, and he’s humble about it, so you want to be around him.”
Added Peterman: “He’s come in and been great and been really coachable, too. He hasn’t thought he’s too good for anything and been a hard worker, so that work ethic is going to ultimately help him in the long run for sure.”
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 ...