Spring Position Battles: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Check out our previous installments here:

Part Three of our look at the open competition spring battles that will unfold at Neyland Stadium (...Haslam Field?) next month features the wide receivers and tight ends.  As we're once again being treated to the "get the ball to the playmakers" coachspeak, do the Vols have said playmakers on the depth chart already...and if not, what contributions can we expect from the incoming freshmen?

If the decline of Tennessee Football can be traced back to 2001, there's a very interesting parallel that runs along that same timeline with wide receivers.  When the Vols were flying the Wide Receiver U banner, it was carried by names like Alvin Harper, Carl Pickens, Cory Fleming, Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson, Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington:

However, you can see the problem when the athletic department puts together a highlight reel like that (from April 2008) that doesn't feature any players from the last seven years. 

Since "The Future" left us in 2002, Tennessee has seen one remarkable season from Robert Meachem in 2006...and that's about it.  The Vols haven't had a definitive go-to playmaker except for Meachem for one season in the last six years...is there enough talent on this roster to start moving that trend in the opposite direction?

And good grief...can we get the ball to Brandon Warren?

The names and the questions after the jump...

Keep in mind, everyone's 2008 numbers are down because, well, we weren't very good at quarterback.  Or offense in general.

THE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS

Gerald Jones

  • 6'0", 185 lbs - Junior
  • 2008:  30 catches, 323 yds, 4 TDs
  • 2007:  11 catches, 111 yds, 1 TD
  • Career Rushing:  31 carries for 184 yds (5.9 per), 3 TDs

In an open competition at a position where we produced so little in 2008, it's difficult to set any kind of order or probability for success with these guys.  But Gerald Jones seems like the logical place to start.

If the Vols do have a playmaker already on the roster, wouldn't he be the best choice?  Jones is the guy Phil Fulmer pointed out when asked about a dropoff in talent last season, saying something to the effect of "I'm sure plenty of other teams in the conference would want him."  His versatility has been on display in the G-Gun package (though again, he has to throw out of it every now and then or it keeps no one honest).  And as an added bonus to his apparent versatility, Jones is relatively sure-handed, and has - knock on wood - never fumbled in his Tennessee career.

Despite the quarterback issues and the task of learning a new offense, the question that has to be asked here is can Gerald Jones be a #1 receiver in the SEC?  We've seen David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor take Lucas Taylor and turn him into one, and turn Robert Meachem from a bust into a first round draft pick.  Jones has the raw ability - can the Vols find a way to utilize it at maximum efficiency, including the G-Gun sets?

Austin Rogers

  • 6'2", 185 lbs - Senior
  • 2008:  14 catches, 180 yds
  • 2007:  56 catches, 624 yds, 4 TDs
  • Career High:  7 catches, 112 yds, 1 TD vs. Southern Miss ('07)

Rogers played the #2 receiver role well in 2007, but saw his playing time decrease dramatically along with the overall offensive production last season.  So while there's precedent for #21 doing some good things, you also wonder what his role will be in the new offense.  Is he a possession/third down option, can he be plugged back in to the #2 role...or will he disappear into obscurity again?  I'm still okay with Austin because he did enough good for us two years ago to warrant that, I think he's a safe choice in the game, even if he's not a dynamic one.  If the Vols can't find someone more dynamic this spring and none of the freshmen separate themselves this fall, you may be seeing more of this kid yet.

Denarius Moore

  • 6'1", 185 lbs - Junior
  • 2008:  11 catches, 271 yds, 2 TDs
  • 2007:  14 catches, 212 yds
  • 4 catches of 45+ yds in 2008

Again, what's his role?  Moore was the definitive deep ball option for the Vols last year, especially when Nick Stephens was under center.  I'm not sure if that qualifies Moore as a "playmaker" or not, but you know the ability to get past the DB and make a great catch (especially the one against Mississippi State) is there.  If he's given more of an opportunity, what kind of contribution can he make?  I like seeing this kid on the field because he's a home run threat...perhaps he can develop a more complete package this spring.

THE UNPROVEN OPTIONS

  • Quintin Hancock - 6'3", 200 lbs Senior
  • Ahmad Paige - 6'1", 180 lbs Sophomore

Two different and interesting scenarios...Hancock was a contributor in 2007, with 16 catches for 165 yards and 3 TDs.  Then last season, he caught zero passes and only saw the field in four games.  Meanwhile, Ahmad Paige is a kid whose talent you hear about constantly, but it never made it off the practice field, and the previous coaching staff questioned his desire and ability to handle adversity.  Can Hancock get back in the rotation...and will we ever see anything from Paige?

You could also throw in here some possible position changes - like Brent Vinson - but they too would definitely qualify as unproven options, and until we see or hear something definitive from the coaches on such a move, it remains pure speculation and rumor.

THE INCOMING FRESHMEN

  • James Green - 6'2", 190 lbs, Rivals 4*
  • Nu'Keese Richardson - 5'10", 165 lbs, Rivals 4*
  • Zach Rogers - 6'2", 170 lbs, Rivals 3*

It's also a guessing game with these kids, though when Monte Kiffin called Richardson "the best player in America", it raises one's eyebrows.  Richardson in particular will carry plenty of hype and baggage with him to Knoxville, the latter being not of his own doing, but a result of the Lane Kiffin-Urban Meyer skirmish of words. 

The thought process places an emphasis on spring practice, because if the players on our current roster can't distinguish themselves by the end of the Orange & White Game, some of those looks in the fall will be given to these guys.  Rogers is Austin's brother, while the other two evaded pursuit from a host of elite schools to come to Tennessee.  Was there a promise of immediate playing time?  Quality depth is certainly an issue at this position, especially if Hancock and Paige continue to stay on the bottom rung.  Either way, should the Vols get in any four or five wide sets, they're almost guaranteed to have a freshman in them.

When the Vols were courting Marlon Brown, the thought was that he could come in and start for us right away.  Nu'Keese is a totally different type of player (giving up six inches and forty pounds to Marlon)...but is he capable of filling the same starting role?  Even if he's not, at least some of these young kids are going to be counted on to contribute right away...mixed with the stressful quarterback situation and playing SEC defenses, the learning curve will be immediate...it's up to these kids to determine how steep it will be.

THE TIGHT ENDS

  • Jeff Cottam - 6'8" 260 lbs Senior - 4 career catches
  • Aaron Douglas - 6'6" 280 lbs Redshirt Freshman
  • Luke Stocker - 6'6" 245 lbs Junior - 17 career catches
  • Brandon Warren - 6'1" 225 lbs Junior - 38 career catches (UT/FSU)

One position where we're not hurting for experience, or on-paper talent, is tight end.

The biggest question here is how Kiffin wants to use the position in his offense.  A pro-style offense should see at least one of these guys on the field most of the time.  You've got three different options with the big fellas, though they each have their issues:  Cottam's never stayed healthy, Stocker had a horrendous case of the drops early last season that he never really got over, and Douglas is inexperienced.  Still, all three are capable and have shown flashes, even if only on the practice field, of doing big things.

Then there's Brandon Warren, the perfect hybrid who caught the master of none end last season.  The previous coaching staff said they tried to make him learn too many things at the start of the year, and that hampered his ability to contribute significantly.  Warren ended the year with 10 catches and a lot of frustration; several times he'd be run on the field for one play, make the catch, and then head back to the sidelines for the rest of the half.

Full disclosure:  Brandon Warren is from my alma mater, and I did play by play on his high school games at Alcoa for three years.  So I pull ridiculously hard for this kid, and anyone from AHS (Rae Sykes for Heisman!), and I want so badly for the Vols to use him at all, and especially in the right way.  I still believe very much that this is a kid that will make good things happen if you get him the ball, as Florida State did when he was freshman All-America in Tallahassee.

The best fit for the talent we have, in my lowly observation, would be to put two of these guys on the field at the same time, Brandon and one of the big boys.  But I'm not sure I see Kiffin lining up with two tight ends a whole bunch.  Still, if our quarterbacks struggle it may play more in that direction towards a power running game.  We'll see.

Either way, the Vols have been vowing to get the ball to the tight end since Jason Witten walked through that door...and much like wide receiver, we haven't seen someone truly special at that position for more than a brief moment since Witten.  Can the Vols utilize one of these guys to make that more of a reality in 2009?

THE QUESTIONS

All of this will play itself out in a few weeks...but for now, to recap:

  • Can Gerald Jones become a true #1 receiver for the Vols?
  • Can any of the returning contributors do more than play a limited backup role in this offense?
  • Are any of the incoming freshmen ready to step in and play right away?
  • What's the most effective way to use our tight ends?

Discuss. 

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