published Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Tennessee Vols' receivers 'better' at blocking

KNOXVILLE — The ultimate glory for a wide receiver is catching touchdowns and making big plays.

The less glamorous side, though, is blocking on the perimeter.

For Tennessee in its opener on Sunday, the latter helped lead to the former.

Zach Azzanni and the Volunteers' wideouts work blocking every day in practice, and it paid off against Utah State as some key blocks sprung one big play and another touchdown, which should make selling the dirty work easier for Tennessee's receivers coach.

"I think each guy is different," Azzanni said after the Vols practiced in shorts and shells on Wednesday. "I sell blocking on, not only are we blocking for each other, blocking for running backs, but it helps open up the pass game for you later down the road. Our goal is to come out and be physical with the secondary, and that helps us throwing the ball.

"Selfishly, you want to be physical and block, because it helps you down the line as well."

Case in point: Pig Howard got the key block on the edge of Josh Smith's 38-yard gain on a bubble screen in the first quarter of Sunday's 38-7 win against Utah State, and he scored the touchdown on a jet sweep to finish that drive.

Jason Croom and tight end Ethan Wolf blocked their defenders well enough to leave Von Pearson one on one with a defender in open space, and the drive following Pearson's score, Croom caught a 27-yard pass.

Frankly, Tennessee's receivers were poor blockers last season, and given how many quick throws the Vols will utilize this season with a sketchy offensive line, the improved blocking, as mundane as it may be, will be key.

"We're better. We're not where I want us to be yet, but we're better," Azzanni said. "I think the kids are buying in. Our style of offense, with what what do up the middle and side-to-side and everything, we need to block so we can spit those balls out there and have them go for more than a yard."

Active A.J.

A.J. Johnson, Tennessee's two-time All-SEC linebacker, looks poised to have a big senior season after he finished the opener with nine tackles, a forced fumble and the first interception of his career.

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said Johnson played noticeably faster for two reasons.

Johnson conditioned with the Vols' defensive backs this summer, and running with the secondary made him faster and improved his stamina. He's also in the second system of a defense for the first time in his career.

"It's really easy to him now," Thigpen said. "Early in the game, we had a couple of adjustments not functioning, but he fixed it really early, and he played the game really fast.

"That was my challenge to him when he came back this season. I was like, 'You'll make a lot more plays just because you're older, you know the system and you know the checks, and everybody on the field is looking to you.' He was faster."

Kendrick coming on

Tennessee is mum on its plan for replacing the injured Jacob Gilliam at left tackle, but it's continuing to look like redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick is in line to slide into that spot.

The Vols could kick right tackle Kyler Kerbyson to left tackle and plug in freshman Coleman Thomas, who was Tennessee's first-team tackle until freshman Jashon Robertson's rapid ascension in training camp. Tennessee also could shuffle the pieces around to get Dylan Wiesman on the field. It doesn't appear junior college transfer Dontavius Blair is ready yet.

Kendrick, though, finished the game following Gilliam's injury, and offensive line coach Don Mahoney said the 6-foot-6, 316-pound Knoxville product earned that playing time with a solid finish to training camp.

"He became more consistent with his play," Mahoney said. "He played extremely fast with decision-making and the understanding of things. It's like [Tennessee coach Butch Jones] talks about, in terms of practice and the production in practice and what you do, he's been a guy that's been pretty steady for us from that standpoint.

"When that [injury] happened, it was a plan in place that we had, and he responded and did some good things."

Upon further review

Tennessee finished the opener with 383 yards of offense, but the Vols came out of the game with two clear areas of improvement: the running game and the downfield passing game.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Tennessee was 50 percent efficient -- efficiency is a run of more than 4 yards or one that picks up a first down -- and thus fell short of its goal of 58-60 percent. Tennessee's longest run was 9 yards.

"The thing I want to see more of, frankly, is explosive runs," Bajakian said.

Tennessee's longest pass play was Smith's 38-yard gain on a play where he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Croom's 27-yard grab was the second-longest play of the night for the Vols' offense.

"We took six shots downfield," Bajakian said. "Maybe we didn't see more because they were all incomplete. That's part of what we need to correct. All camp long I thought we've had very good deep-ball accuracy, and we were oh-fer."

Bajakian did say, though, he was "very pleased" with Tennessee's tempo. In its base tempo, the Vols want to snap the ball with more than 20 seconds left on the play clock, and Bajakian said his offense accomplished that "20-plus times." The Vols finished the game with 79 plays.

Tennessee tidbits

Punter Matt Darr (ankle) was back at practice and punting on Wednesday afternoon after he missed Tuesday's practice. ... Freshman defensive back Rashaan Gaulden (hand/wrist) was back at practice on Wednesday, and receiver Johnathon Johnson (ankle) returned as well. ... Starting left guard Marcus Jackson was not on the practice field during the open period, but Mahoney said he joined the Vols later after not feeling well. ... Asked on Wednesday's SEC coaches' teleconference if his team met or exceeded his expectations in the opener, Vols coach Butch Jones said, "I would probably neither." ... Jones said defensive tackle Danny O'Brien "played one of his better games that he's played since we've been here" against Utah State and praised defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen as well.

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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