KNOXVILLE - The Vols will return to Neyland Stadium Saturday for their first ever meeting with Sun Belt conference foe South Alabama at 12:21 p.m. on SEC TV.
Through four games, the Volunteers have started five different wideouts and had nine record receptions.
For Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni it sometimes feels like the classic carney game Whac-A-Mole.
"I've seen progress, it's just funny because it comes and goes in different areas like that mole game," said Azzanni.
"You slap that mole then another one pops up, that's what I feel like sometimes with young inexperienced receivers. You feel like you got one thing hit so you hit the mole down, then another area pops up.
"I'm teaching them everything from nutrition, how we meet, to how we come out to the field and just grinding that into them. There's nobody in that room for them to look at and go `do it like that guy.' They've had bad habits for a while here and I'm trying to break them. I don't have an old guy that's been around me for a long time that I can say `that's the guy, do it like him.'
"I've got to be the guy and I'm okay with that. Next year hopefully I'll have a lot of guys that know exactly how I want it done and it'll get a lot better."
With a wideout by committee scheme, no one guy has secured his place as the top dog.
"I start based on who has the best week of practice," said Azzanni. "It's as simple as that. Yesterday is was Jason (Croom). He didn't have as good a practice today, so it was Josh (Smith). I'll look at the film and see who comes out tomorrow. That's how I do it."
Sophomore speedster Pig Howard has established himself as the guy in the slot, hauling in eight receptions for 112 yards and two scores on the season, but Azzanni sees room for improvement.
"He has a lot of upside to him still," said Azzanni. "I think he's still learning how to be a big time player and that's my job. He still doesn't have great habits yet, and I'm still working with him on that as far as how to study the game, take care of his body and how to come out here every day.
"That's my job... to keep pushing, keep chomping and hopefully it'll come out in the end. Hopefully he can be an Antonio Brown, a Jared Abbrederis and be one of those guys one of these days."
QUINN WORKING HIS WAY IN
With just six receptions from the position this season, tight ends coach Mark Elder is looking to get his guys more involved into the Vols' offensive gameplan.
Currently sitting at No. 3 on the depth chart, junior college transfer and former volleyball star Woody Quinn is making a push for some time.
"Woody has had a better week of practice this week, he has picked up a couple things as far as what I've been asking him to do," said Elder. "He is taking steps forward and if he continues to progress I see him getting more in the mix as the season goes on."
Quinn's biggest improvement has been his physicality.
"He is playing more physical, that is the biggest thing," said Elder. "He is playing with a better pad level and playing more physical and those are the things we are asking him to do.
"First and foremost our tight ends have to be physical guys at the point of attack. They are not a receiver; they are a tight end. They have to be tough guys and that is what we are asking them to do. Now obviously we throw those guys the ball quite a bit but if you are not willing to do the first part then the second part is not going to play a role either."
With Quinn making a significant step up from the juco level to the best college football conference in the nation, Elder knew it was going to take some time.
"It is an adjustment process for anybody going from one level to another level," said Elder. "I think that a lot of times the receiving aspect comes a little easier because that's not the part that is difficult coming to a college where the guys are bigger and more physical.
"[Being physical] is the tough part, being able to win your one-on-one at the point of attack and making that step forward when the competition level is greater."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian will tell you the Vols are trying to run a balanced offense.
That means equal time for the wide receivers, running backs and tight ends, in order to keep the defense guessing.
Though the Tennessee wide receivers emerged towards the end of the Florida game last Saturday, it was the running backs getting the bulk of the action at the beginning of the game.
This week, against South Alabama, the Vols need the wide receivers to emerge in order to spread out the defense and help the running backs find some space.
"We are a better group in the front at offensive line and we have a lot of experience at the running back," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "We realize we are playing a new quarterback trying to get those guys in a rhythm and receivers confident also."
"Everybody reads the scouting reports and understands they have to stop the run," continued Gillespie. "That is just a challenge to us every week. Regardless of what they do on the other side we have to establish a run game."
"Once we have been consistent in the games that we have won, we have been able to improve our passing game."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On evaluating the running backs the last two games)
"I think there were times when Rajion (Neal) stuck it up in there. I tell them all the time that a good running back makes it right when you are wrong at times. At times there were some creases that we hit and some we look back on and wish we would have hit a little harder. Overall we continue to get better running the ball and we have to keep working at it."
»(On negative run plays the last game)
"That was a football team that had about 17 or 18 tackles for loss. They do a really good job up front just grading disruption at the point of attack. That is one thing we looked at and we understood we didn't have a lot of time to pad our feet. To come out of that game with only one negative yard run was one of our goals. We did a pretty good job at that."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On injuries at the slot position)
"I feel like I'm on Punk'd, the cameras going to come out and say 'just kidding, everyone is healthy.' It's been rough having these injuries in the slot, especially with the injuries to the tight end position as well. That's been really difficult playing with one or two tight ends, so the whole thing together has been difficult. I think it's all being difficult for a reason."
»(On Marquez North)
"Everything is happening fast for him. He's studying the game more, coming in watching himself, watching film more. The more he does that, the more he starts to learn the game. People forget he was really a running back; he wasn't a natural receiver to begin with. I'm teaching him how to do all that stuff as well. He's up and down, but he works his tail off so it's going to come out the other end."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
»(On Michael Palardy)
"He has been outstanding as far as kicking the football, right now he is perfect. He has made every single one of his extra points, he has made every single one of his field goals. He has done everything we have asked in that regard. I think he is punting the ball with great hang time and great distance, he is kicking the ball with great hang time and great distance.
The thing we would like to see him improve in those areas is his pinpoint accuracy. We would like to see if we are asking him to place the ball here to make sure it is there or really darn close. That is where we need to get a little bit better with him. He is doing well as far as accuracy on field goals, we just need to see the accuracy as far as punting and kicking off is concerned."
»(On the kickoff return game)
"We didn't do a very good job in any aspect of kickoff return, from the returner not hitting in the proper spot to losing our one on ones or unfortunately our double team battles. The reality with kickoff return and it's the same thing with punt return game is you can have nine or 10 guys doing the right thing, doing a great job, one guy loses his battle, his one on one and that is the guy that makes the tackle and you stink. That is unfortunate. You can do a great job, 10 out of 11 a lot of times is good enough in certain phases but in the return game a lot of times it is not. That one guy came down, it wasn't any one person that kept losing their battle it was this guy lost it on play one, this guy lost it on play two. We didn't perform that well in that regard.
Punt return we didn't necessarily have opportunities, we were in safe a couple times and we had the positive play when they muffed the snap and so forth. But we didn't have many opportunities as far as punt return but our kickoff return has to improve, we weren't very good at that last week."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On shifting linebackers)
"Everything is situational. They put three receivers in the game and you put three linebackers out because you can't help the receivers. Florida had a different philosophy they are going to line up and bloody your nose. They put in two backs, two tight ends and sometimes three tight ends and an extra lineman. You knew where they were going to run the ball."
"It was my man is better than your man and you just gotta stop them. There was no vagueness or not knowing where the ball was going to be. You knew where the ball was going, your guy just had to make the play. That is a little different than what we play in the nickel. The nickel is really situation in the ball for us. It is really specialized. You put a nickel in where they have their best inside receiver."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On this week's practice)
"I think the one thing is -- they are hard on themselves as I mentioned, I am too, in the fact of every day in what we do. Guys, you're not going to play a perfect game. It's understandable. We can't let plays accumulate after one may have gone bad to where another one after that. It was a battle. [Florida] won more shares of the battle than we did and it's something to grow from and move forward. There's no walking around and feeling sorry for ourselves. We're not doing that. We're not wired that way.
It's something in which you build and learn from and that's what we're doing. Again, today was a productive day. I loved the way we approached the day. It was one of those days you don't want to practice. I always say to them, I want to feel the practice. I felt the practice today. They have the look in their eyes, the approach, all those things."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)