KNOXVILLE — The hours of travel and the hundreds of phone calls and text messages are in the past.
Now comes a few more weeks of waiting for Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
In Josh Malone and Von Pearson, the Volunteers added two highly rated wideouts to the program as part of the 2014 recruiting class, and though the two players have been on campus since enrolling in January, Azzanni won't get to begin truly molding their talent until Tennessee begins spring practice March 7.
"I can't wait," Azzanni said on signing day last week. "Our receiver corps, there's eight individuals not in our room from last spring. There were eight individuals from our spring roster last year that are not in that room this year, which is crazy.
"We've rehauled that whole room -- got the guys, the competitive guys, the guys we want to fit in that room skill-set wise, and they've opened their arms to Von and Josh and Vic [Wharton] now."
While Wharton, the speedy slot receiver from the Nashville area, won't arrive till the summer, Azzanni will have much more to work with this spring than he did last year.
Tennessee's top five producers at receiver from last season are all back, and freshmen Marquez North and Josh Smith and junior college transfer Johnathon Johnson didn't get to Knoxville until summer workouts a year ago.
North, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound former four-star recruit from Charlotte, shone as a freshman, as he led Tennessee in receiving yards (496) and made three big catches in the Vols' upset of South Carolina. Smith struggled with drops but showed some flashes, and Johnson came on late in the season in the slot.
Pig Howard, who led the Vols in catches with 44, and Jason Croom, who finished his redshirt freshman season with 269 yards on 18 catches, are back for their third years in the program.
Throw Malone, the star from Station Camp High School in Gallatin, and Pearson, one of the top juco prospects in the country last season, into that mix, and it's easy to see Azzanni would be excited.
"I think Marquez and Josh are pretty much inseparable right now. Those guys do everything together," he said. "That's neat to see that, that bond going on already.
"I'm really excited to get out with all those guys, continue Marquez's development, Josh's development, Croom is coming along, Josh Smith -- there's a lot of talent in that room that needs to be developed. I've never been more excited to get out and get rolling with a group."
The 6-3, 195-pound Malone was rated as a five-star prospect by Rivals.com, and Tennessee came from behind to land him in December, when his televised commitment "really restarted the energy with this recruiting class," second-year Vols coach Butch Jones said.
The Class AAA Mr. Football winner in Tennessee caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaged more than 10 yards per carry, ran for five scores and returned kickoffs for two additional touchdowns as a senior.
With his dreadlocks flowing out the back of his helmet as he made multiple defenders miss on a bubble screen or hauled in a deep pass, Pearson looked a little bit like Cordarelle Patterson in his gaudy highlight film. The 6-3, 185-pound Virginia native caught 93 passes for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 10 games for Feather River College in California.
Azzanni said the pair's "raw talent" is what jumps out to him, though he said both players need fine-tuning.
"Josh brings a very high ceiling," he said. "There might be receivers that were recruited that were ranked higher and whatever, but you go out and you watch him, and you're like, 'I don't know how much better he can get.' He's a good player now. Where I think Josh was a good player, but his ceiling is very, very high. Now I've just got to go coach him.
"Von is very productive, caught more balls than anyone in junior college. He brings an experience standpoint right now to us, but I've watched him out there already do some things, and he's as raw as they get. He needs a lot of polishing."
It's a group that should be more talented and more competitive. Tennessee entered last season with just three players -- Howard, former walk-on Jacob Carter and Vincent Dallas, who left the program in midseason -- who had caught a pass in a college game. As expected, the Vols struggled despite making noticeable strides over the course of the year.
Azzanni already has noticed a more competitive group.
"They're competing their butt off with everything they do in the weight room," he said. "I can hear 'em talking about it. 'I bench more than you, I ran the 20-yard faster than you,' and 'No you didn't, let's go out right now.' That's what I want. We didn't have that a whole lot last year. We only had a little bit of it.
"Great teams have that all the time. You can't shut them up, because they're so competitive. We'd get to one-on-ones last season, and it was quiet. I have the feeling it's going to be a little bit louder this year, so it's going to be fun."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...