When talking about the wide receiver position for Tennessee, all the attention, press and fan excitement over the offseason centered on returning star Marquez North and newcomers Josh Malone and Von Pearson.
And while those three very well could be the starting trio when the Vols open their season against Utah State, most of the buzz from the coaching staff has been about two of the guys that few fans were talking about: sophomore Josh Smith and true freshman Vic Wharton.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and as far as habits, how we do things, I have not ever had a freshman come in and have a first day practice, second day practice like Vic Wharton had,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “As far as not having to get him going, as far as habits that we worked on last year, which tells you that our guys did a heck of a job over the summer with him, helping him. He’s done really well, I’m really happy with Vic.”
Wharton was perhaps known better as the lead recruiter in the 2014 signing class. After being the first player to commit in Butch Jones’ first full recruiting class on Christmas Day, 2012, Wharton led the charge of rounding up other highly-rated players to commit to and ultimately sign with the University of Tennessee.
It turns out he can play as well. Getting looks with the starting receivers at some points during the first few practices of fall camp, Wharton looks like he can find a niche, even on this talented receiver unit. And there’s always the possibility for special teams contributions as well. A standout punt and kick returner in high school, Wharton brings incredible versatility that can help the Vols in a variety of way.
“Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m okay with,” Wharton said. “That’s the main thing. It’s just being coachable and doing whatever I’m asked. If it’s kickoff, punt team, punt return, kick return – I’ll do whatever I need to do.”
Smith is looking to turn the page on a career that started with somewhat of a bumpy first season. The Knoxville native did haul in 12 catches for 182 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman last year, but he was hampered by a persistent knee injury and was plagued by several untimely drops.
“The word I’ve been emphasizing is ‘new,’” Smith said. “Everybody’s been asking me what’s ‘new.’ I say I’m a new me, new team, new day and I’m just a new guy and I’m not trying to look back at last season. … I’m starting strong and I’ve got to end strong.”
“Josh is playing with a very high level of confidence right now,” added Jones. “He is blocking, he is playing physical and he is making catches and he is making plays for his. So I have been exceptionally pleased with him.”
Smith and Wharton will have to keep up their high level of work to make an impact. This is a deep, talented unit that Tennessee will rely on to move the ball down the field. But they’re off to a great start and both have made quite a statement early in fall camp.
“That’s just our mindset being receivers, always being competitive,” Wharton said “It’s a fight every day. That’s what Coach [Azzanni] teaches, and that’s what every receiver always does. You can’t be part of WRU (Wide Receiver University) without being competitive.”