KNOXVILLE — Marquez North is an easy pick to be the breakout star for Tennessee's football offense in 2014, but the sophomore receiver hardly sees himself as a star just yet.
As he reminded the handful of reporters tossing questions, he's still a young player.
North's actually an even younger receiver.
"In high school, I didn't really play a lot of receiver," he said Thursday as the Volunteers reported for preseason practice, which begins tonight. "Like Coach [Butch] Jones says, it's a toolbox you have with your receivers. You've got to know your breaking points, your blocking, your '63' mentality, all that.
"I'm just trying to put all that together right now and build on that confidence. I feel like I have a lot more potential to reach just because this is really going to be my second year of getting into it. I've still got a lot of knowledge to gain, and I'm eager to get it."
The 6-foot-4, 221-pound North, who was a four-star recruit, said things didn't really click for him as a freshman until the middle of last season, when he made a toe-tapping touchdown catch to spark Tennessee's rally against Georgia.
The Vols wouldn't have upset South Carolina without North's three tough catches, and he finished the season with 38 receptions for a team-leading 496 yards.
As a senior in high school, North ran 45 times for 682 yards while catching just 20 passes for 322 yards.
"He was a high school running back who didn't really understand the nuances of playing receiver," said Jones, a former receivers coach. "There was a lot of times his instincts took over. The overall fine details of playing winning football at the receiver [position] ... now he's had a full year of being able to do that."
The soft-spoken North, one of the most driven players on the team, also knows he's practically a veteran presence for the Vols' receiving corps.
"Everybody's made great strides from, for a lot of these guys, year one to year two, and Marquez is one of those guys," quarterback Justin Worley said. "He's been more vocal this offseason. He's taken more of a leadership role of taking some of these new guys, like Josh Malone, Vic Wharton, Von Pearson and some of these new guys, under his wing.
"You can see his confidence growing each and every day."
The summer was about much more than weightlifting and windsprints for Tennessee's players, as Jones brought in a stream of guest speakers and former players to speak to the team.
"I feel like some things might seem cheesy and some things might seem a little bit corny," defensive lineman Jordan Williams said, "but the overall messages of being positive and staying together, I feel like it's going to help us."
The returning former Vols included Peyton Manning, Jason Witten, Eric Berry and Albert Haynesworth. Jones even brought in two guests, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, with checkered pasts in addition to authors and military personnel.
"Everybody had different stories," North said, "but the message and the dialect was the same. They were all speaking of a different mentality to get where you want to get and the determination to strive for other things and be better. I can tell that Coach Jones puts in a lot more work than a lot of other people just so we can get that message."
Center Mack Crowder said Jones' efforts to go outside the box resonate with players.
"It means he cares about us as football players and as men outside of football," he said. "He cares about just developing us in every way, and the players see that, and that's somebody you want to play for. When he's that invested in you, you're going to give your all for him on Saturdays."
Eating with 'enemies'
Over the course of the summer, Tennessee's assistant coaches would host a position unit other than the ones they coach at their homes, most of the time for cookouts and swimming.
The unusual practice, aimed at improving team chemistry, sent the offensive linemen to defensive coordinator John Jancek's house.
"They're all great guys, and we all have a great time whenever we're with them," Crowder said. "We just don't get the opportunity that much because they're on the other side of the ball. They're usually our enemies.
"It's not something that's happened before, but I was excited to get a different perspective on how other coaches act."
Tight ends coach Mark Elder hosted the Vols' receivers.
"It's not common," North said, "but it wasn't odd to me because just like Coach Jones preaches, we're one team and one Tennessee."
The Vols will have one practice open to the public on Saturday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. The gates at Neyland Stadium will open an hour before it starts. Parking will be free.
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 ...