KNOXVILLE — Zach Azzanni has coached plenty of talented wide receivers and seen his fair share of impressive catches over the course of his 15-year coaching career.
Where would Tennessee's receivers coach put Marquez North's catch, on which the freshman pinned the ball to his shoulder pads with his left hand as a South Carolina defender reached across his body?
The 39-yard grab put the Volunteers in position to beat the Gamecocks and made weekend lists of top-10 plays.
"It's right there," Azzanni said Wednesday evening following the Volunteers' practice, "especially with where we're at in the program and everything that catch meant.
"But I'm going to tell you what, there was a lot of plays that led up to that catch to help that out. Justin Worley made an unbelievable throw as he got hit. We got a piece of the defensive end with the back, the line held up and we just did our small part on the outside by making a great catch."
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound North used his impressive frame on all three of his catches against South Carolina and put into action what Azzanni and Tennessee's coaches have stressed all the season in terms of going up and catching balls at their highest point.
"He's worked hard at being aggressive to the football," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "Make no mistake about it, I don't think it was luck. What he was able to execute on that particular play was a testament to the work that he's put in. We've stressed all along about attacking the football when it's in the air and high-pointing the ball."
North, who bounced back after dropping a potential big play against Georgia, leads the Vols in receiving yards (281) and is second on the team in catches (21) behind only Pig Howard, and Azzanni hopes to see the rookie continue his progress after his big moment.
"He's got a lot of work to do," he said. "He made some fantastic coaches. It's the other 84 snaps that we've got to focus on that are still up and down. But I'll tell you what, he came up big when he had to, and that was great to see. We're going to build off that, build off those big-time catches that maybe he wasn't making earlier in the year and just keep improving.
"There was a coupe of routes I think he wished he would have had back, but he's still working on it. He's still work in progress, but it was really neat to see him bounce back after some routes he wish he could have had back and go make some big catches."
Tackle tandem No. 2
For the past four games, Tennessee has relied on a redshirt freshman and a seldom-used fourth-year player as its third and fourth defensive tackles, but Danny O'Brien and Greg Clark have played admirably in the Vols' rotation.
The Vols have been without Mo Couch since the season's second game as the senior's NCAA situation remains unresolved, and Trevarris Saulsberry has been out the past four games after hurting his knee against Oregon.
O'Brien, a former four-star recruit from Michigan, and Clark, a 6-foot-2, 327-pound redshirt junior with two appearances in his career after signing in 2010, have filled in nicely behind the starting duo of Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood.
"What we've asked out of them is that they can give us some quality reps, and they've done that," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I'm not afraid to put them out there because they're sound, they know what they're doing, they're big and physical enough. Obviously they've got to get better and get more productivity out of them, but I'm very confident in putting them in there.
"O'Brien's been in some really critical situations on the field, and I feel totally comfortable with them."
The 6-foot-2, 287-pound O'Brien had three tackles and one of Tennessee's four sacks against South Carolina, and he figures to be an important figure for the future of the Vols' defensive line, which loses six seniors after this season.
"I really like O'Brien," Stripling said. "I think that's one of his characteristics. He's tough, tough, tough."
College football's new targeting rule became a scorching topic around the SEC this week after there were four hits flagged for targeting and three players ejected during the league's three noon kickoffs last week.
South Carolina's Kadetrix Marcus was disqualified for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Howard that was a textbook example of an illegal hit, which this year comes with a 15-yard penalty and an automatic ejection subject to video review. Florida's Brian Moore was ejected for targeting Tennessee tight end Brendan Downs in September.
The Vols, though, have avoided any targeting penalties this season, and Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez said it's an everyday emphasis.
"They really tell us to be smart," safety Brian Randolph said. "They say if you try to make a play on the ball, the best thing is to go low or hit them in the chest, don't launch, don't leave your feet. That's a big emphasis for us."
Really, that's all coaches can do, is coach it and talk to their players about avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact.
"We keep talking about it. We make sure of it," Martinez said. "Obviously the tough ones will be when guys are breaking on balls in the middle and stuff when guys instinctively are going for the ball, but I think we've done a good job of educating them from the beginning.
"We had to actually teach different techniques as far as how to go about going for a ball and being conscious of it. I don't want them to pull up and not play fast and play hard. That's the thing you worry about, but at the same time, too, you worry about getting ejected a great player that's going to hurt for that ball game and the next one."
Randolph popped North on a sideline route during a preseason camp practice in August, and Martinez said the different officials Tennessee's coaches showed the video to and consulted with after practice had varying opinions on whether or not it would draw a flag in a game.
"That's the one. That's the big one. That was the best one because that one right there is probably the one that everybody was half and half," Martinez recalled. "Then when they watched it again, we asked the official, 'Put yourself in the replay booth, where are you going to go, what are you going to do?' It was cut right down the middle.
"Different guys, not having them all in the same room, we said, 'OK, what do you think? Well, now, what do you think?' That's where it becomes a concern because everybody sees it differently, and whenever you have something that's emphasized over and over and over, and if it's close and gray, it's going to be negative."
Freshman receiver Josh Smith returned to practice on Wednesday after missing the last week, including the South Carolina game, with a hamstring injury. ... Quarterback Justin Worley again wore gloves on both hands as he tries to improve his grip. ... Though it was a cool, sunny afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee practiced indoors and blared crowd noise to prepare for its third road game of the season.
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 ...
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