KNOXVILLE -- No. 2 and No. 8 have been far and away options No. 1 and No. 2 for Tennessee's passing game.
The duo of Alton "Pig" Howard and freshman Marquez North has combined to catch 77 passes through 10 games this season, while the rest of the Volunteers' young receiving corps together have just 47 receptions.
North and Howard have 41 catches for 569 yards between in the past five games alone, and receivers coach Zach Azzanni has been encouraged by the development of both players.
"I was hoping they would," he said following Tennessee's practice on Wednesday. "I didn't know what we had, to be quite honest with you, till we got into the meat of it, but we certainly need those other guys to keep coming and step up and give those guys some help. They've done a nice job up until this point."
That'll have to continue, starting Saturday night against Vanderbilt, for Tennessee to win its final two regular season games and return to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound North showed up on campus with high expectations, given he was the top-rated high school prospect the Vols signed in the 2013 class at a position where Tennessee suffered heavy production losses from last season.
The former four-star prospect, who played mostly wildcat quarterback and recorded more carries than catches as a senior at Mallard Creek High School outside of Charlotte, got off to a slow start, catching only 14 passes in the season's first five games.
Since catching the first touchdown of his career with a toe-tapping grab along the sideline against Georgia, North steadily has produced each week. Tennessee wouldn't have upset South Carolina without North, who made three tough catches, including a one-handed, 39-yard snag on the game-winning drive. In the last three weeks, North has 16 catches for 213 yards.
"Most improved guy, for sure, as far as on the field," Azzanni said. "He's light years ahead of where he was when he came in. He's still learning. This will be a great next two weeks for him, a great -- hopefully -- bowl, great offseason. He should be a different player again when we jog out in the spring and a different player when we jog out [next] fall.
"I can't say enough about him. I love coaching him. He's a great kid to coach. He's what you want to coach. He does anything you ask him to do."
His 494 receiving yards ranks first among SEC true freshmen, and the 37 catches trail only Kelley Washington, who caught 64 in 2001, among the most by a freshman at Tennessee.
"He holds on to every word that the coaches say to him," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said. "He wants to be the very best at everything that he does, and he takes the hard critiques, and he just wants to know. He puts probably more stress and pressure on himself than anyone to do well.
"When you have an individual like that that wants to be great, he can accomplish anything he puts his mind to."
The development of the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Howard may be more impressive. Jones said this week Howard is "not even the same type player" he was to start the season. Going back to spring practice, Tennessee's coaches wanted Howard to improve his conditioning and take command in the slot, the most important receiver position in the offense.
It took until the middle of the season, but it's appeared to click for the shifty sophomore, and both player and Jones pointed to an improved approach away from the field that's aided to his development on the field.
"If you're struggling in the classroom and you're behind on what you're allowing in your mind, that's going to affect your performance on the field," Howard said. "You're going to have your mind somewhere else, and you're not going to be focused. If you get everything done, you have one less thing to worry about, and it keeps you mentally tuned in on the field."
As a freshman, Howard caught 13 passes for 54 yards playing behind Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers. He totaled 116 yards on 10 touches against Georgia and bounced back from his overtime fumble with a touchdown catch against South Carolina last month, and his 89-yard game against Missouri was his third game of at least 70 yards this season.
"I just don't think Pig really knew, and I think he's still trying to find his way a little bit, on how to be a big-time player at this level," Azzanni said. "He didn't really have anyone last year to kind of show him the ropes that way to be a consistent guy all the time. He just kind of got thrown in there as a freshman and just kind of ran around.
"But really [he] didn't know off the field how to take care of himself, how to study the game and didn't really understand how to be a big-time guy in meetings and be a trusted guy. He's slowly but surely starting to become that. Again, he should be a different guy when we jog out here in the next couple of weeks to the offseason, to spring, to summer."
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 ...