published Thursday, August 7th, 2014

'New' mantra has Tennessee Vols' Josh Smith 'starting strong'

  • photo
    Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith (25) is tackled by Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson (4).
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Josh Smith made some memorable catches during the first half of his freshman season at Tennessee.

How it ended, though, made it a forgettable season for the Volunteers' receiver.

After a knee injury derailed a solid start to the season and contributed to some key late-season drops, Smith made the word "new" his mantra this offseason, and it's helped him get off to a strong start for Tennessee this preseason.

The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Knoxville product worked his way into some first-team work through the Vols' opening five practices of training camp and impressed everyone around him during the process.

"Everybody's asking me, 'What's new?'" Smith said following Tuesday's practice. "I'm a new me, a new team, a new day. I'm a new guy, and I'm not trying to look back at last season. It's a new me, and I feel like that. I'm starting strong, and I've got to end strong."

In the first six games of 2013, Smith -- a prolific wideout at Christian Academy of Knoxville, 10 miles from Tennessee's campus -- caught 10 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown.

The production included a 51-yard catch-and-run to set up the Vols' early touchdown at Oregon, a key third-down grab on Tennessee's fourth-quarter go-ahead drive against Georgia and a 29-yard touchdown catch against South Alabama.

From there, though, it went downhill.

"I've been really, really trying to not look back at last season," Smith said. "I'm trying to zone it out. This is a new year, and this is the time to be me. No injuries, and I'm excited to play the game of football all healthy and stuff."

Smith missed Tennessee's upset of South Carolina with an injury and caught 9-yard passes against Alabama and Missouri. He had a brutal drop of a likely touchdown pass in the second quarter of the loss to the Tigers. He had another drop in the second half of the Vanderbilt loss and didn't catch a pass in season's final three games.

His knee bothered him throughout the season, and he underwent surgery to repair the meniscus after the season.

"I don't know a percentage, but it definitely was on my mind," said Smith, who piled up more than 4,000 receiving yards with 52 touchdowns in high school "But, I mean, football, you're not gonna be healthy. It's a physical game, and you're gonna be hurt, and I had to push through. We didn't have much depth, and now we do, and I just had to fight through it."

Now Smith is fighting his way to near the top of the pack of Tennessee's talented, young receiving corps.

He's been on the field in the Vols' base three-receiver set along with Marquez North and Von Pearson. North -- also a sophomore -- is a physical specimen, and Pearson has dazzling abilities with the ball in his hands. Josh Malone and Jason Croom are other big-bodied wideouts.

And yet there's Smith, plugging away.

"I have never batted an eye on Josh Smith," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said Sunday. "Josh Smith is going to be a very good player here. He's what we're looking for as far as skill-set, quick-twitch, very, very tough, football's very important to him. I think the sky's the limit for Josh, and I've always said that.

"He had a rough year last year and, quite frankly, shouldn't have had to play as a true freshman. That's where we were as a program. We worked those kinks out, he got that knee fixed and we're on. Slow but sure, he's doing really well. I don't want to get ahead of the game, but he's just being a consistent guy right now and making plays for us."

Tennessee's coaches insisted Smith had the best hands on the team last season despite his struggles catching the ball in some games, and he's faster than most think. When he came in, he was more polished than most first-year wideouts thanks to playing in a pass-happy system in high school.

Smith actually earned a scholarship offer two summers ago from Tennessee's former coaching staff.

Now he says he "for sure" feels like a different player who's using how last season ended as motivation.

"How does that not motivate you?" he said.

"Josh is playing with a very high level of confidence right now," Vols coach Butch Jones said Tuesday. "He's blocking, he's playing physical and he's making catches. He's making plays for us. I've been exceptionally pleased with him.

"Josh, again, is one of those individuals, he doesn't say too much. He just comes to work each and every day. So far I've been very, very proud of him, and I know Coach Z [Azzanni] is excited about him."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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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