By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- When Zach Azzanni took over as wide receiver coach at Tennessee, he inherited a position that wasn't just thin on talent and experience, it was thin on physical bodies.
His spring practice roster in 2013 featured two wide receivers, Alton Howard and Jacob Carter, with a combined 21 career receptions. Neither had started a game at Tennessee. No other true receiver on the roster had so much as hauled in a pass.
Reinforcements arrived in time for the 2013 season. Howard had a solid season as a slot receiver, while true freshman Marquez North burst onto the scene with 38 catches for 496 yards and a touchdown, a dramatic grab along the side of the end zone against Georgia.
As he begins his second fall camp with he Volunteers, Azzanni has a another talented group of newcomers to mentor to compliment Carter, Howard, North, Jason Croom and the rest of the Vol receiving corps.
North's quick development as a freshman gave a roadmap to this year's newcomers on playing time and big expectations. But the sophomore says the lessons on the field were only part of how he matured into a contributor so quickly.
"Coach really pushed maturity," North said of Azzanni. "It's off the field, more mental when you're a freshman to handle everything."
"It's night and day," Azzanni said of the development of North from last 2013 to 2014. "He knows the expectations, I don;t have to push him for effort and how we play our style. Now, it's just tweaking his skill set and that mentality and how to be a better leader."
One of the freshmen that Azzanni is bringing that maturity out of is Josh Malone, one of the top high school receivers in the country a season ago, who discovered as an early enrollee in the spring that college football is a whole different level.
"Josh has come out with a little bit of a different mindset," Azzanni said of Malone's improved approach in fall camp. "He's finding out, as freshmen, you've got to be able to recover and just come out here every day with the same attitude, the same mentality. He's learning every day that I don't stop, won't stop until I get what I want out of them."
Malone has taken to Azzanni's approach.
"Coach Azzanni is a great coach, he really strives on technique and tries to get every ounce of effort out of you," Malone said. "He makes it fun to play wide receiver here."
Carter has seen all sides of it from that first spring with the new staff. He has seen Azzanni continue to push his players to the max, but also says he's changed his approach as the level of talent and experience has grown.
"Coach Z is great about coaching different guys different ways," Carter said. "He understands different people. Last year he was coaching a little more on X's and O's. This year we know those things and he's teaching techniques and our styles and habits."
Junior Von Pearson, another player in his first season at Tennessee, relishes how much Azzanni pushes him and his teammates on the practice field.
"He's hard on us, but it's for good reason," said Pearson. "He molds technique in us. It's hard, but I like it. Football isn't supposed to be easy."
North knows the lessons Azzanni taught last season are far from the finish line. They're a starting point for how hard he has to push himself for the rest of his Vol career.
"We have a real good relationship," North said of his work with his position coach. "We're trying to get better at everything we do and he pushes me to the limit every day."