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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The unsettled state of Tennessee's receiving corps threatens to neutralize one potential matchup advantage for the Volunteers in their Saturday matchup at No. 12 Georgia.
Junior-college transfer Von Pearson and sophomore Josh Smith both are dealing with high ankle sprains. Tennessee coach Butch Jones already has indicated Pearson won't play Saturday. Smith's status for the Georgia game remains uncertain.
If both Pearson and Smith are unavailable, Tennessee would be missing two of its top five receivers for its Southeastern Conference opener. Smith has 10 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. Pearson has seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, though he hasn't played since getting hurt in the first half of the Vols' second game.
"Josh Smith and Von Pearson are very, very good football players, but it's all about working to create depth through recruiting," Jones said. "It's just another opportunity for another individual."
Jones added that tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm should both play against Georgia (2-1, 0-1 SEC). Wolf sat out the Vols' 34-10 loss at Oklahoma on Sept. 13 with a bruised knee, and Helm was dealing with a sprained ankle last week. Jones said Helm has returned to practiced and that Wolf is "back full speed."
Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC) upgraded at receiver as much as any other position during the offseason. Tennessee has six touchdown passes through its first three games after having just 12 all of last season. Injuries are putting that improved depth to the test.
The loss of Pearson and the potential absence of Smith would put even more of a target on sophomore Marquez North, the Vols' top receiver with 14 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. North had a touchdown catch last year in Tennessee's 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to play more snaps," North said. "I'm prepared for it, and I'm conditioned."
Tennessee's injury situation also could create an expanded role for freshman Josh Malone, a heralded recruit who made an official visit to Georgia before signing with the Vols. Malone has only five catches for 63 yards so far, but he's drawn praise recently for his improved practice performance.
"He's worked exceptionally hard," Jones said. "He's starting to understand the small details of what it takes to play championship football at the receiver level - the work ethic, the practice habits. I thought he had a very good work week last week."
Pass defense has been one of Georgia's main concerns so far. South Carolina's Dylan Thompson went 21 of 30 for 271 yards with three touchdowns and one interception Sept. 13 in the Gamecocks' 38-35 victory over Georgia. The Bulldogs bounced back Saturday with a 66-0 rout of winless Troy, a game that produced Georgia's largest margin of victory since a 76-0 win over The Citadel in 1958. Georgia's starting secondary includes one true freshman (Dominick Sanders) and one redshirt freshman (Aaron Davis).
"There were a couple mistakes that could have been critical errors that we kind of got away with, so we're still not 100 percent on getting lined up right," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "But we're getting a lot better. The communication is getting a lot better, and we're still playing a lot of guys. So there's still a big learning curve back there, but I do feel like we're getting better."
Tennessee's aware of the challenges involved in playing underclassmen. The Vols have used 22 true freshmen this season, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. Jones likes what he's seen of Georgia's young secondary.
"They have it all, but when you look at them, they all kind of look the same," Jones said. "They have great length, and they have great range."
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.