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10 Questions for 2011 #6 - Are Da'Rick Rogers & Justin Hunter ready for prime time?

It's rare for a true freshman to come in and make a difference right away.  For every Marcus Lattimore there are at least two Brian Dardens, and even though we're seeing players come out of high school more ready for the college game than ever before, it still takes a unique individual and a unique set of circumstances for even the best freshmen to make an immediate impact.  Just before Lane Kiffin's first season began, we ranked the Top 10 UT freshman performances of the last two decades.  You'll note that only one wide receiver made our list, and that's in part because Carl Pickens played both ways as a freshman.  Only four freshmen finished in the Top 100 nationally in receiving yards per game last season, and only one of them - Nick Harwell from Miami (OH) - played on a bowl team.

So anyone who expected Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter to come in and become instant stars last season - especially on a team with three proven senior targets - was out of touch with reality.  Rogers caught only 11 passes last year, Hunter just 16.  But it was what Hunter did with those 16 receptions that made us take notice:

Hunter didn't catch enough passes to qualify for this stat nationally, but you can see why he averaged 25.94 yards per reception (it's interesting to note that Denarius Moore actually finished second nationally among those who qualified with 20.87 yards per reception).  Da'Rick Rogers can't match Hunter's highlight reel, but did get more than 75% of his yards after Tyler Bray took command.  And while Hunter was no slouch in high school (rated by Rivals as the eighth best receiver in the Class of 2010) Rogers was considered the more prototypical option:  the second best receiver in that class, and a bigger frame to go with his 6'3" stature.  And the general consensus out of spring practice was that Rogers continued to progress nicely.

We've believed the hype and seen it in action in small-but-spectacular doses.  But now that Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker are gone, are Rogers and Hunter truly ready to become the top two options in Tennessee's passing game?  And just how good can they be? 

Every good quarterback at UT in the last two decades can easily be matched to a pair of his favorite targets.  Andy Kelly had Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper.  Heath Shuler had Cory Fleming and Craig Faulkner.  Peyton Manning had Joey Kent and Marcus Nash.  Tee Martin had Peerless Price and Cedrick Wilson.  Casey Clausen had Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington (and Jason Witten, which also explains why Clausen's production decreased when he traded them for James Banks and C.J. Fayton later on). 

Erik Ainge is the most interesting study:  his amazing freshman season featured seven players who caught at least 16 passes, but none who caught more than 30.  As a junior he had Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain, then Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers as a senior.  Meachem and Swain were clearly more talented, but the '07 season is an excellent case study in the power of a good quarterback fully immersed in his offensive coordinator's system:  David Cutcliffe got incredible production out of an offense with no star power at wide receiver, a line that completely self-destructed the following season but led the nation in sacks allowed in '07, and a quarterback battling physical and emotional demons.  Cutcliffe combined all those elements for 262 passing yards and 33 points per game, a breath away from an SEC Championship.

Sometimes the quarterback helps make the receivers.  Heath Shuler led what is still the school's highest scoring offense (42.8 ppg) in 1993 with Fleming and Faulkner; Peyton Manning put Kent and Nash on the top two lines of Wide Receiver U's all-time receptions and yardage lists.  Those four wide receivers combined for 23 career receptions in the NFL.

And sometimes the receivers help make the quarterback.  I'll be defending Casey Clausen's legacy for the rest of my life, but even I can acknowledge that he was at his best as a sophomore when he was throwing to Stallworth, Witten, and The Future.  Andy Kelly was less talented than Clausen but won a pair of SEC titles in part because he flat knew how to win...but also because it's easier to win when you're throwing to Pickens and Harper.  Those four wide receivers combined for 1,134 career receptions in the NFL.

So Tyler Bray, like Kelly, Shuler, and Manning, will get at least two full seasons to throw to the same two primary targets if everyone stays healthy.  Who's going to make who better in this relationship?

We'll deal with Bray specifically later in our countdown, but Denarius Moore made him look really good on several questionable throws.  That's what good receivers do.  How quickly can Rogers and Hunter do the same?

Here's a look at the best seasons for each of the best duos of the last two decades (receptions-yards-TDs):

  • 90:  Carl Pickens 53-917-6, Alvin Harper 37-567-8
  • 93:  Craig Faulkner 40-680-6, Cory Fleming 39-596-11
  • 96:  Joey Kent 68-1080-7, Marcus Nash 53-688-3
  • 98:  Peerless Price 61-920-10, Cedrick Wilson 33-558-6
  • 01:  Kelley Washington 64-1010-5, Donte Stallworth 41-821-10
  • 06:  Robert Meachem 71-1298-11, Jayson Swain 49-688-6

By comparison, last year Denarius Moore led the way with 47-981-9, while Gerald Jones had 55-596-4.

Is it incredibly unfair for us to expect Rogers and Hunter to join that list this season?  Probably.  But all the numbers we've seen from Bray have been strong, and when you combine that with Hunter's freshman highlights and the hype that still surrounds both of them, it's a fun game to play.

So a word of caution, then, in the final few weeks I'm still able to offer one before irrational optimism takes over:  if one or both of Rogers and Hunter doesn't play like the names on that list up there right away, perhaps we shouldn't panic.  All the parts involved are sophomores, and they'll have to grow up together.  We need them to be consistent before we need them to be spectacular - Tyler Bray and this offense need consistently good over occasionally great right now.

Until Denarius Moore proves himself on Sundays, it's been five years since an NFL receiver played on Saturdays in Neyland Stadium, and ten years since two did so at the same time.  If Rogers and Hunter aren't those guys right away, it doesn't mean they can't become them eventually.  They couldn't be in better hands than those belonging to Charlie Baggett, who knows a thing or two about coaching up great wide receivers.  But like everything else with the 2011 Vols, the sooner they mature, the better.

(Note:  we'll discuss this more with Brad Shepard from Third Saturday in Blogtober on our podcast tonight at 9:00 PM EDT; Brad wrote the piece on Rediscovering Wide Receiver U for our Maple Street Press annual.)