Tennessee fans have been expecting great things from the receiving corps, and a return to the status of the school as “Wide Receiver U,” since at least 2003, when the Vols landed a trio of highly touted receivers. Robert Meachem brought his lofty 5-star status to campus, and Bret Smith and Jayson Swain were hauling four stars a piece.
Each was the prototypical receiver: tall (6-3, 6-3, and 6-1, respectively), fast (4.4, 4.5, and 4.5, respectively), and chiseled. I, like most fans I’m sure, am haunted by the whispery voice of Bob Davie, who during the 2005 LSU game made the same exclamation every time a receiver would touch the ball, regardless of whether they caught it or not: “This group of receivers for Tennessee is one of the most talented in the country!”
Well, maybe, if talent was measured in inches, body fat percentages, and 40 times. But when it came to actually getting open, catching the ball, and making big plays, most Vol fans will tell you that the receivers have not yet lived up to their potential. Take, for instance, The Season of Which We Do Not Speak: In 2005, Meachem led all receivers with 29 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns. Smith had 21 receptions for 223 yards and three TDs. Swain caught the ball 27 times for 380 yards and no scores. The trio have combined for a total of 15 touchdowns over the past three years. Contrast that with, say, South Carolina’s Sydney Rice, who caught 58 passes for 952 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman just last year.
Okay, so the numbers are not exactly what we’d hoped for. So what’s the problem?
Was it the dreaded quarterback rotation? Receiver C.J. Fayton said as much after graduating last year. Or was it the too-deep receiver rotation? The idea was that if they rotated eight or nine guys throughout the games, they’d tire out the defensive backs. Didn’t happen. Maybe it was the position coach, who was canned after the last nail in the coffin of the 2005 season was hammered flush to the wood.
Those three potential factors have been eliminated. Gone (hopefully!) is the indecision about the starting QB. Ainge is our guy. Gone is the 85-deep receiver rotation, which has been replaced with a five-deep unit. Gone is former position coach Pat Washington. Coach Trooper Taylor, who had coached up an under-achieving stable of running backs over the past couple of seasons, has been reassigned to the receiving unit, and he aims to repeat the feat with his new group of guys.
|Coach Trooper Taylor|
Taylor went to work right away, whittling the rotation down to just a handful of guys who will get the bulk of the snaps. Up-downs followed all dropped passes. Receivers had to catch 100 projectiles per day over the summer, whether they were footballs, tennis balls, or . . . bricks. They were actually catching bricks, which, I guess, would teach you to catch with your hands and not drop what was thrown to you.
|If you can catch a brick, you can catch anything.|
Anyway, they’ve also been digging batteries and coins out of buckets full of rice to improve grip strength, and they’re focusing on being aggressive on downfield blocks.
Taylor’s got them hopping, and word is that they’re starting to make plays in the scrimmages. The last scrimmage featured several big plays – 37, 30, 37, 39, 65 and 24 yards – an almost astounding feet considering the unit only had two plays of 40 or more yards during the Season of Which We Do Not Speak. Meachem apparently caught a bullet (I believe that’s an analogy, but you can’t really be sure, now can you?) from Ainge for a touchdown at last Saturday’s scrimmage. Swain reportedly looks leaner and quicker and is making strong play after strong play.
Meachem, Smith, and Swain appear to have the starting spots locked down. Behind them are sophomores Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe, and Austin Rogers. Lucas Taylor appears to be a real playmaker, and Rogers and Briscoe got some playing time last year and appear solid, except that Briscoe had a tough scrimmage last weekend. Don’t count out true freshman Quintin Hancock, who apparently is making some noise at practices and scrimmages.
Tight ends Chris Brown and brothers Brad and Jeff Cottam figure to be utilized a bit more in David Cutcliffe’s offense as receivers than tight ends have been over the last couple of years.
Best-case scenario: One of Meachem, Smith, and Swain goes on a tear and begins to dominate any single person who tries to cover him, which requires defenses to adjust to that receiver’s side thereby softening up the coverage on the other two. Ainge spreads the wealth, and the three starters each finish the season with 1,000 yards, beating the total of their last three seasons combined. The reserves chip in another 100 yards each.
Worst-case scenario: Coach Cutcliffe, in a bold attempt to stretch the field, calls six consecutive deep outs to begin the season, all of which are either dropped, overthrown, or intercepted. On the third offensive series, the corners and safeties realize that they no longer need to cover receivers, and the team puts 11 in the box to stop Arian Foster.
Best guess: Two of the three starters will improve significantly but not dramatically, increasing their output over last year by 50%. The third, probably Smith, will lose his starting position to one of the three reserves, probably Lucas Taylor. 2,800 yards passing for the season among the unit.