We kick off a new series today, looking at the 10 most important questions for Tennessee Football this fall.
I think at this point we can all agree that the talent level ain't what it used to be 'round these parts. It's Derek Dooley's job to change that, and though he and Lane Kiffin faced extremely small windows of opportunity just before the last two Signing Days, Tennessee closed better than any of us could've hoped both times.
Kiffin's 2009 class was 10th in Rivals' team rankings, and Dooley finished with the 9th best class this February. It's a good start in the rebuilding process, especially given the coaching transitions. But the one area where the Vols may have already caught up to everyone else in terms of incoming talent is wide receiver.
We thought Kiffin's class would be the one to put Tennessee back on the path to Wide Receiver U - the Vols signed a pair of Top 20 receivers in Nu'Keese Richardson (#9) and James Green (#17). But Green never made it to Knoxville, and Nu'Keese is more famous for his taste in getaway vehicles than any of his eight catches in nine games. The Vols do retain Marsalis Teague (the #28 athlete in the Class of 2009), who showed potential as a freshman and was sixth on the team in receptions last year.
One of the immediate challenges Dooley faced was finding players to join Teague as the wide receivers of the future - the Vols have both talent and experience at the position this year with Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, but both are seniors, as is tight end Luke Stocker. When Nu'Keese was dismissed, it left only Teague and Zach Rogers (3 catches) as options for 2011.
Dooley inherited Ted Meline and Matt Milton as Kiffin commitments, a pair of early enrollees who have stayed the course. But in a little more than two weeks, our new coach then went out and not only added two of the best wide receivers in the nation...he stole them away from SEC foes.
Justin Hunter looked like he was headed to LSU, but Dooley swayed the Virginia Beach native to come to Knoxville. But perhaps the biggest prize of the entire recruting classs was Da'Rick "I still don't know how to pronounce your name" Rogers, the Georgia high school player of the year and the nation's #2 WR, who spurned UGA on Signing Day to come to Knoxville.
Those two gave the Vols a 2010 WR class that looks like this (with Rivals.com position rankings):
- #2 Da'Rick Rogers - 6'3" 206 lbs - Calhoun, GA
- #8 Justin Hunter - 6'4" 172 lbs - Virginia Beach, VA
- #18 Matt Milton - 6'6" 192 lbs - Mascoutah, IL
- #41 Ted Meline - 6'2" 171 lbs - Miami, FL
Lane Kiffin may have signed two of the top three WRs in the country in Kyle Prater and Markeith Ambles (Go Trogans), but only Texas (who signed four of the top 31 WRs) signed a deeper WR class than Tennessee did this year.
Of course, recruiting rankings are about perception, and reality doesn't always agree. The best comparison to this year's class of incoming WRs is 2003, when the Vols signed #3 Robert Meachem, #7 Jayson Swain, and #14 Bret Smith. Those three eventually became solid players (and Meachem became a star in his final year), and though Meachem was injured in 2003, Swain and Smith made some big catches as freshmen. The Vols' entire receiving corps in '03 wasn't as experienced or talented as what Tennessee will have this fall, but Swain and Smith still weren't asked to make a huge difference right away.
(Also of note, for those who are particularly excited about signing the #2 wide receiver in the country...the previous eight #2 WR prospects (according to Rivals) were DiShon Platt, Chad Jackson, Cameron Colvin, Fred Rouse, Vidal Hazelton, Terrance Toliver, A.J. Green, and Andre Debose. How many household names in that group?)
We say all of this to point out that despite the fact that the Vols signed one of the most talented WR groups in the nation, it would be unusual if any of them made an instant impact. Since 2004, the most catches at UT by a true freshman is only 14, by Denarius Moore in 2007. That makes Teague's 13 catches from last year look a little better.
The last UT receiver to make a significant impact as a true freshman? You have to put a huge asterisk next to Kelley Washington, who came to Knoxville as a 22 year old. Carl Pickens was amazing in 1989, but was a redshirt freshman. Denarius Moore and Jayson Swain were named Freshman All-SEC with their initial limited contributions, as were Terrence Cleveland and Alvin Harper in '86/'87...and of course, so was Kelley Washington. But in the modern era, no straight from high school true freshman WR has made a truly significant impact for the Vols.
Could Da'Rick Rogers or any of these guys be an exception to that rule? Maybe, and if they are we'll certainly take it. The 6'6" Milton did have six catches in the Orange & White Game. But the question about the freshman wide receivers really deals with two issues:
- Will these guys show enough potential for Tennessee to have confidence in them in 2011?
- How often will Derek Dooley play true freshmen?
The numbers last year for the senior Vol pass catchers are solid:
- Gerald Jones: 46 catches, 680 yards, 4 TD
- Denarius Moore: 40 catches, 540 yards, 7 TD
- Luke Stocker: 29 catches, 389 yards, 5 TD
But once all that goes away in 2011, how confident will we be in Teague and these freshmen?
We don't need to see 30+ catches from any of these guys this year (though again, we'd take that as bonus). You just want to see enough from guys like Rogers that gives us confidence in this group going forward - if they're as good as advertised, we won't have to worry about this position for years, and they can become a huge part of the foundation for Dooley's rebuilding project. If you put your faith in recruiting rankings, the Vols will have championship caliber wide receivers on campus this fall. We don't need to have that belief completely validated this fall with those three seniors playing in front of them (and of course, with the QB situation we may not get a great feel for their true talent either)...we just want to see enough to believe in for the future.
To that end, how often will Derek Dooley utilize them? At Louisiana Tech, Dooley wasn't afraid to play the young guys: in 2007, freshman Joe Anderson caught 27 passes, and last year freshman Cruz Williams was second on the team with 259 receiving yards. While I wouldn't expect Dooley to go as far as Kiffin did, and give Da'Rick Rogers a start against Tennessee-Martin over one of the seniors, I do think he won't hesitate if any of the four are ready to contribute right away.
Again, you never know. The Vols signed guys like Ahmad Paige and Slick Shelley in the last decade, who were Top 15 WR prospects, and never got anything from them. But this class is so deep, so highly touted, and has such an easy transition with three seniors playing in front of them...you can't help but be excited about the future.
How much of that future will we see this fall?