KNOXVILLE — Alabama receiver Amari Cooper twice got behind Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton.
Fortunately for the Volunteers' freshman, he dodged allowing a long touchdown both times.
Cooper might be the most talented receiver in the SEC, and the sophomore got the best of Sutton on two occasions during the Crimson Tide's win last Saturday. One touchdown pass in the third quarter was called back when Cooper was flagged for pass interference after pushing off. Later in the game, A.J. McCarron's pass was just beyond his wideout's reach.
"They've been going at him," Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez said of Sutton on Wednesday. "They've been going at both our corners. He's not surprised about it, and it's going to continue to happen. There's not any concerns.
"Just get better."
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound rookie has played well this season and had another productive afternoon in Tuscaloosa. He made a nice play to fight off a block to tackle Cooper for a 2-yard loss on a first-quarter bubble screen. He later fell on Kenyan Drake's fumble for second recovery of the season.
Yet there were two plays on which the Tide took aim and nearly succeeded, though Martinez said the freshman's handled those plays "pretty good" since the game.
It'll be another challenge for Sutton and the Vols' secondary this week with a group of tall, athletic receivers. On the 10th-ranked Tigers' two-deep depth chart, five wideouts are listed at 6-foot-3 or taller. The 6-foot-5 Marcus Lucas leads Missouri with 39 catches, and the 6-foot-6 L'Damian Washington is the Tigers' leader in yards (635) and touchdowns (eight).
Chances are Sutton and fellow starting corner Justin Coleman will find themselves in one-on-one coverage with those two or others on Saturday night.
"He's a pretty focused guy," Martinez said. "He knows that he's got to get better, just like I've been saying all along. He's just a freshman, and he will get better."
Frustrating is how receivers coach Zach Azzanni characterized his unit's performance in Tuscaloosa, though he's chosen to focus on the positives.
The high points, per Azzanni: Marquez North, who caught four passes for 87 yards, again displayed his ability; slot receiver Johnathon Johnson bounced back from a drop to make a nice grab on a wheel route; and Jason Croom made two catches to convert on a third and fourth down.
"Everyone acts like we laid an egg. We played a pretty good game on the perimeter," Azzanni said. "Were there some plays we'd like to have back? Sure. The problem is there's teams like Alabama that might go out and drop three passes. It doesn't matter when you're winning 41-10. We drop some passes when we're down 28-nothing and it gets magnified.
"We also made some really good plays, and that's what I'm focusing on with those kids. There was a lot of good things in that game. That's what I'm trying to make sure I magnify for those kids."
Tennessee's receiving corps rewarded Azzanni's patience and his approach, and last week's performance, which included four dropped passes, hasn't dented either.
"It's not going to be perfect yet, and when you get down 28-nothing so quickly, you start to press a little bit, and I think that's what may have happened," he said. "I'm not down on them at all. In fact, I'm encouraged by what I see."
Two days after undergoing surgery on his right (throwing) thumb, Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, with his thumb in a cast and his arm in a sling, was back on the practice field watching his teammates prepare for Saturday night's game.
Earlier Wednesday, first-year coach Butch Jones didn't rule out a possible November return for the junior.
"We're being told there is a possibility, and all is really based on how the body heals," he said on the SEC coaches' teleconference. "Each person is different in terms of the healing process, but we've been told it could be anywhere from three weeks now to four weeks to five weeks. It's just how he progresses."
Fellow quarterback Nathan Peterman, who suffered a similar ligament injury as Worley against Florida in mid-September, only recently got his cast off, and the redshirt freshman isn't yet physically ready to play five weeks after his procedure.
Martinez sounded pretty confident Brian Randolph (shoulder) would be ready to play on Saturday. The valuable defender was again in a noncontact jersey and did very little during the open part of practice. Byron Moore (sprained right ankle) was also in a noncontact jersey.
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 ...