JuCo transfer receiver Von Pearson practices with the Tennessee Vols.Photo by Patrick Brown
KNOXVILLE — If you're ever near the wide receivers at Tennessee's football practices, you're likely going to hear Von Pearson's voice.
His teammate will run a slant route with the correct form or make a nice catch, and the first-year receiver is shouting encouragement.
A peek into Pearson's path to the Volunteers explains why.
Consider this: At one point, Pearson was out of football and working at a McDonald's and the Busch Gardens theme park near his hometown in Virginia.
A couple of years later, he's making a one-handed catch in a Tennessee spring practice that landed him on the list of the day's top 10 plays on ESPN's SportsCenter.
"There's some guys, you just like to be around them," Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni said following Sunday's practice. "You can't get him down. I like players that come out and get me hyped up sometimes. I'm always the guy getting everybody going.
"It's a great infectious enthusiasm."
As he's shown since enrolling at Tennessee in January, Pearson has some talent, too.
He's consistently trotted onto the practice field with the first-team offense dating back to the spring, and Pearson is a one of the reasons coaches feel the Vols will have more playmakers on offense in 2014.
And if someone in the program isn't raving about Pearson's ability, they're talking about his gratitude.
"He walks by me every day, taps me and says, 'Thank you, Coach, thank you for the opportunity,'" Vols coach Butch Jones said after Saturday's practice. "The kids feed off of that, and he's always positive."
As a senior at Denbigh High School, Pearson caught 50 passes for 880 yards as a senior in 2009, but after that it appeared his football career was over. While out of the game, he worked "all over the place," Jones said.
"I just feel like coming from a hard life, never making it back in high school, I feel like nothing can faze me," Pearson said Saturday. "I just try to keep that high energy, because nothing else can go wrong. I had this second chance, so why be mad? You're at Tennessee."
Pearson was out of football for a year when Otis Williams, one of his friends and a close friend to former Vols and current Tennessee Titans receiver Justin Hunter, also a Virginia native, talked him into joining him in playing football at Feather River College across the country in California.
In his first season there in 2012, Pearson caught 39 passes for 757 yards and 10 touchdowns.
It was in the middle of his second season at Feather River when he caught Tennessee's eye.
"We were just scouring," Azzanni said. "We needed wideouts bad, and we were gonna go the junior college ranks, high school, whatever we had to do to find some guys to come here and get this thing rolling again. Scott Altizer and Bob Welton and myself, we all just have it, and we went on the computer and we're digging every night making calls."
As Azzanni tells it, the Vols watched Pearson's early-season highlights on the scouting video site Hudl.com and flew out to Quincy -- "nowhere," Azzanni called it -- in eastern California.
Pearson was in the midst of a gaudy season in which he caught 93 passes for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns and recorded five games of 200-plus receiving yards, including a 311-yard game in mid-September.
Jones's initial reaction to his first viewing of Pearson's highlights? "Dynamic."
"He's great with the ball with his hands," Azzanni said. "I'm like, 'I can't believe no one's found this guy yet.' That's what my reaction was. What's wrong with him? He's got a wooden leg? What's the deal? He's our kind of kid, that's the best part.
"I call him on the phone and you can feel the enthusiasm in his voice, and you love talking to him. I needed personality. We were a dead group when I first got here. We just didn't have any life in the group, and he brought some life."
Tennessee got Pearson to take an official visit to Knoxville for the Vols' upset of South Carolina last October, and he verbally committed that Sunday.
Less than five months later, Pearson made a one-handed snag on a back-shoulder throw during Tennessee's fourth spring practice in mid-March that landed him on ESPN. The YouTube video of the catch has more than 99,000 views.
Despite his highlight, Pearson struggled to get through practices, Jones said, and Pearson echoed those comments.
"In spring practice, I was awful," Pearson said. "I just made plays off my athleticism. I feel like me coming in the spring helped a lot. It's slowed down a lot, I know what I'm doing, I can work my routes more and Coach [Azzanni] is working on my technique rather than me knowing the plays."
The infectious positivity, which was tested Sunday when Jones barked over his microphone that Pearson "took the day off" following his media debut Saturday, was always the constant.
Asked if he's coached a similar player from that standpoint, Azzanni immediately named Antonio Brown, the current Pittsburgh Steelers star he coached at Central Michigan.
"You can't hide a great outlook on life," Azzanni said. "You just can't hide it. You meet those people and instantly they have that certain aura or vibe about them that, 'Hey, there's something about that guy.' He's a humble, humble kid."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...