We'll deal with Da'Rick Rogers & Justin Hunter and their move from special guests to main event in the passing game later in our countdown. But even if we assume that Rogers and Hunter will become everything we want them to be as the featured wide receivers, the Vol passing game is still going to need additional options...and coming into the season, there are few proven commodities.
Hunter and Rogers combined for 27 catches last season, just 11.3% of UT's total receptions. Whoever become the new third and fourth wide receivers for Tyler Bray don't have to be spectacular, just consistent enough for that ten percent of the passing game. But complicating the issue this year is the absence of Luke Stocker: even if Rogers and Hunter give us everything we got from Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, Stocker - 39 catches for 417 yards - was a sure third option as the tight end last year. So while the Vols may not need to find a superstar further down the depth chart, the passing game will need more than one reliable option to present itself overall.
If they take the same approach as last season, the Vols may look to develop their younger receivers in specific roles. Justin Hunter was clearly the deep threat, and UT went to him right away: he made a big catch in the first half of the Oregon game and scored on a deep ball against Florida. The guy averaged 26 yards per catch for a reason.
Meanwhile, the Vols clearly struggled on third down when Gerald Jones was injured. Having a solid route-runner with sure hands made life much easier on both Matt Simms and Tyler Bray, so the Vols may look to develop someone else as an underneath option.
Here are Tyler Bray's choices for his third receiving option - after the jump, we'll take a look at each of these guys and what they could possibly bring to the table:
Zach Rogers is the experienced guy, who actually caught more passes (14) than Da'Rick Rogers (11) last season. The difference, intentional or unintentional, is that once Tyler Bray took command, Da'Rick caught five passes for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Zach caught one pass for five yards in the Music City Bowl.
With Matt Milton's name disappearing from conversation, Zach is the only non-freshman who will line up at wide receiver behind Da'Rick and Hunter. That quality alone makes us want to make him the underneath guy who knows the playbook and is your safe target on third down. But Rogers does have speed too, if the Vols can get him the ball in space.
Vincent Dallas made it through spring practice, which should initially give him a leg up on DeAnthony Arnett. But Arnett, as the highest rated recruit in UT's 2011 class, could be too good to leave off the field. We all hope that's the case, and again, we've just seen with Hunter the kind of difference a freshman wide receiver can come in and make immediately. The best case scenario may be that Arnett matures into our best third option over the course of the season, while Zach Rogers and Vincent Dallas are good enough to allow for some four and five receiver sets. No matter how talented Arnett and Dallas may be, it still wouldn't surprise me to see Zach Rogers in the game on the majority of third-and-longs.
Outside the receivers, the Vols do have some additional pass catching experience. Tauren Poole caught 22 passes last year, ahead of Hunter's 16 for fourth best on the team. He was thrown to almost equally by both quarterbacks, but had more success with Simms in the game. The numbers suggest Bray used him as a last-ditch effort: four catches for just sixteen yards in the bowl game, one for minus-two against Ole Miss, one for no gain against Kentucky. If Poole (or any of the RBs) are going to be effective in the passing game, the Vols will have to use them as something more than a bail out.
And into Luke Stocker's shadow step Mychal Rivera, who did play a lot last year, and Cameron Clear, who I'm only including in this poll because I'm an eternal optimist. Clear may not start or end his career as a tight end...but when you see 6'6" 265 in a true freshman, you get hopeful. Either way, both have a long way to go to catch up to what Stocker gave the Vol offense.
Doesn't really matter who it is, but the Vols need someone to distinguish themselves in the passing game behind Rogers and Hunter. The sooner the Vols get a reliable third option, the sooner they make opposing defenses work harder to stop the passing game. And my thought would be that the more reliable targets you have, the more fun Jim Chaney and Tyler Bray can have crossing up the defense.