Tennessee sophomore receiver Marquez North should surge into SEC stardom in 2014, but teammate Josh Malone will have a greater impact on the Volunteers than North did as a freshman.
That's a tall order considering North finished his inaugural campaign with the Volunteers with 38 catches for 496 yards and a touchdown. But Malone—a mid-term signee from Gallatin, Tenn.—is up to the challenge.
While Malone's receiving yards may not eclipse those of North's first year, he has a better setup to make a greater impact and more game-changing plays, simply because of the talent around him.
The biggest advantage Malone has is that North will be taking up most of the defense's attention, freeing up the young receiver to exploit match-ups with weaker cornerbacks.
Malone is one of the most polished receivers coming out of high school in this year's recruiting cycle. He is blazing fast and adept at running routes and catching the ball. He caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Station Camp High, according to 247Sports.
The potential he brings to Knoxville is limitless. UT wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown about one of the jewels of the Vols recruiting class on national signing day:
Josh brings a very high ceiling. 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.
Malone has all the physical prowess needed to be effective immediately, and though he could use some time in the weight room, enrolling in January will enable him to have nearly eight months of training before he suits up for his first game.
Contrast Malone's head-start with North not being able to come in mid-term a year ago, and Malone is going to be much further along in his development by the season opener.
Also, North wasn't exclusively a wide receiver at Mallard Creek High outside of Charlotte, N.C. Azzanni noted to Ryan Callahan during last season (subscription required):
Again, I say this all the time, but (North) was a high-school running back. He never played wideout. I mean, they put him on the edge and they said, 'Run real fast.' That was about the extent of his wide receiver play. Never ran a route, never did any of that stuff.
North essentially pieced together his 2013 numbers on raw talent alone.
When you consider they also came in a year where the Vols started three quarterbacks, failed to find any other consistent receiving threats and generally sputtered on offense, they become even more impressive.
Having an established, dependable quarterback—no matter who wins the job—will help all of the receivers on the roster.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Malone faces in attempting to replicate North's first year is the fact that there will be a lot of talent around him, whereas North had very little. It meant more attention for North to combat, but it could mean fewer reps in a crowded corps for Malone.
Malone, however, is too talented to keep off the field. He also has the complete package to score more touchdowns and be targeted in more pivotal moments of the game when most of the defensive attention is focused squarely on North.
Even when North made his incredible, one-handed catch to set up last year's win over South Carolina, defenders blanketed him. With North, rising junior Pig Howard and much-anticipated junior college transfer Von Pearson on the field, Malone won't see the same undivided attention.
That's why he'll reach the end zone more often and provide more big plays than Tennessee's star sophomore did in 2013.