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10 Questions for 2012 #10: New Wide Receivers

If it's not this guy behind Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who will it be?
If it's not this guy behind Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who will it be?

There are many stats we could use to describe the futility of 2011, but this one might be the most amazing:

Last year Da'Rick Rogers led the Vols with 1,040 receiving yards, the fifth highest total in school history. Mychal Rivera was second with 344 yards.

Justin Hunter was third, just thirty yards behind Rivera. He played two games and one possession.

The question this time last year was whether or not Rogers and Hunter could become an effective one-two punch once they were out of the shadows of Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. The answer to that question was a resounding yes. And we know Rivera is a reliable target at tight end.

But in Tyler Bray's Carnival of Passing, there has to be more than three rides. So who else is going to catch the football for Tennessee this fall?

Not DeAnthony Arnett, whose freshman promise headed north to Michigan State. Not Vincent Dallas, who caught three passes last season and now finds himself in the defensive backfield. And not Cameron Clear, dismissed from the team several weeks ago.

The tight end position will at least have experience with Brendan Downs and perhaps a dash of Ben Bartholomew, which means whatever Justin Meredith brings to the table right away will be bonus material. But after Rogers and Hunter at wide receiver, there is only Zach Rogers - 31 catches in three full seasons - and then a wealth of inexperience. At this point, I think we all feel like we know who Zach Rogers is and know what he can and can't do - we'd love to be surprised, but I'm not sure any of us are counting on him to be that guy in the slot or be that third or fourth option all season. So that means the Vols are in need of more wealth and less inexperience.

Brad covered walk-on Jacob Carter after spring practice, who again would be a nice story and a welcome addition if he can truly be productive at wide receiver. But most of UT's hopes at wide receiver after their dynamic duo are centered on the four men who will make their first appearance in a Tennessee uniform this fall.

It's not that the Vols should need anything spectacular. Rogers and Hunter will do the heavy lifting, with Rivera as capable option at tight end. This means that Tennessee doesn't need any of their newcomers to come in and be stars right away, but do need at least one if not two of them to be serviceable options.

For instance, in 2010 the trio of Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker combined for 141 catches, 1,994 yards, and 15 touchdowns. This allowed the freshman editions of Rogers and Hunter to play specific roles in the offense: Hunter became the deep ball specialist, averaging 25.9 yards per reception. And Rogers came alive once Tyler Bray entered the mix and the Vols got pass-happy, gaining 75.4% of his yards with #8 throwing it has way.

We're not quite sure what the final breakdown will be for Rogers and Hunter this year, but consider some of the other dynamic duos at Wide Receiver U and their total percentage of the receiving yards in a single season:

  • 1990: Alvin Harper & Carl Pickens - 1,484 yards (66.2% of the passing yards)
  • 1993: Craig Faulkner & Cory Fleming - 1,276 yards (54.2%)
  • 1996: Joey Kent & Marcus Nash - 1,768 yards (53.7%)
  • 1997: Marcus Nash & Peerless Price - 1,868 yards (48.9%)
  • 2001: Donte Stallworth & Kelley Washington - 1,831 yards (61.6% with an asterisk for Stallworth's wrist)
  • 2006: Robert Meachem & Jayson Swain - 1,986 yards (66.4%)
It would seem to be a safe assumption that Rogers and Hunter are going to account for somewhere between half and two-thirds of Tennessee's passing yards, plus another significant chunk from Mychal Rivera. That leaves the remaining 25ish percent for everyone else. The backs will get some, the other tight ends will get some, but Tennessee is going to need something from Cordarrelle Patterson, Pig Howard, Jason Croom, and Drae Bowles.

Let's start with Patterson first, because for every Kelley Washington there tend to be two Kenny O'Neals. Again, though the Vols may need him greatly in 2013, right now Tennessee doesn't need Patterson (C-Patt? Do we like C-Patt?) to be The Future. We've already discussed last year's abnormality, but here's what the number three wide receiver has pulled in for Tennessee going back a little further:

  • 2010: Justin Hunter, 16 catches, 415 yards
  • 2009: Quintin Hancock, 27 catches, 298 yards
  • 2008: Is Clawfense, has a stroke
  • 2007: Josh Briscoe, 56 catches, 557 yards
Briscoe is probably more of the exception here, as he was already established as the third option playing with Meachem and Swain from the year before. You also have varying degrees of backs and tight ends; Luke Stocker was huge in 2010, while Montario Hardesty and Arian Foster were both significant parts of the passing game in their senior seasons.

The point is, regardless of historical trends, the Vols need something from the new guys and Patterson, the nation's best junior college wide receiver with NFL measurables, appears to be the first choice. If you believe what you hear (and it's late June, so who knows), Pig Howard is going to be involved with Tennessee's offense in some capacity, even if it's out of the backfield or in special formations. And again, with Croom (6'5" 220), he could be Matt Milton, he could be David Martin, he could be who knows. Like the rest of these guys, it's not about spectacular right now. It's about being useful.

Best case scenario from here: Patterson is the real deal, and the Vols spend most of their time hanging out in three wide sets and dare you to guess where the ball is going. But a still-good scenario would be that even if Patterson isn't a stud right away, at least two of these guys become what DeAnthony Arnett was last year or Justin Hunter the year before: someone you can put on the field that the defense has to respect. The more real options Bray has in the passing game, the more dangerous we're going to be...and we're already pretty dangerous in the starting lineup.

We'll deal with the run game later in our countdown, but especially if Tennessee struggles again on the ground, finding more options through the air is a must. Unless Zach Rogers or Jacob Carter gives us something real, we're going to have to have at least two of these newcomers be productive right away. Which two and how productive? We're about to find out...but for a program that just pulled in the best group of wide receivers in the country in February, Tennessee now has the weapons in the starting lineup, the quarterback to get it done, and the potential down the depth chart to make Wide Receiver U a present reality in 2012.