In one of the most pivotal seasons in several years on The Hill, how do the Volunteers replace All-SEC playmaking ability with production that yielded 67 catches for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago?
Taking the Moneyball approach, it won't be done with one player.
Zach Rogers is the obvious choice to take the lead as the senior of the group and a vast amount of experience in fourth-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's system.
"We've got to move on with who's here and right now we've got a good core group of guys and we're going to go out there and play like (Da'Rick)'s there or not. We're ready to play regardless," said Zach Rogers, who has 31 catches for 415 yards and two TDs in 35 career games.
"You've just got to be on your toes 24/7. If somebody goes down, the next guy's got to be ready to come back up. We've got a good group of guys that can step up in place of Da'Rick and I think we'll get it done regardless."
Following Thursday morning's practice (coming on the second day of the fall semester), quarterback Tyler Bray went on record about the situation. He and Da'rick Rogers were in the same recruiting class and were close both on the field and off it. Still, judging by his expressions, the 6-foot-6 rock slinger was not overly shocked by the news.
"Losing a receiver never helps, but we've got two guys right now that are really good," Bray said. "We've got Zach Rogers. We've got Mike Rivera at tight end."
The 2011 season caused a slight shifting of the gears in terms of recruiting for the Tennessee staff. It quickly found out how rapidly matters can snowball in the Southeastern Conference with injuries and/or suspensions. Thus, a point was made to get players on the roster immediately that can step in should a starter go down.
What better way to replace a FOX Sports NEXT five-star prospect than by signing another five-star? Enter Cordarrelle Patterson.
The two-time JUCO All-American was not able to enroll until the second summer session due to academics and has been slowed further by a bad shoulder. Yet, he is slated to start and would be lined up out wide if kickoff was tonight.
|Cordarrelle Patterson is the top option to work opposite Justin Hunter to keep octane in the tank of the Tennessee passing game.|
When Hunter went down with an ACL tear in Gainesville, Fla., last September, Bray started funneling several passes to tight end Mychal Rivera and freshman DeAnthony Arnett. Well, Arnett is is now a Michigan State Spartan. Rivera, albeit slowed temporarily by a knee sprain, returns and will be a welcomed safety valve when the defense's attention runs deep or wide.
"I think I'm going to be a huge part, huge part (of the offense)," fifth-year senior Rivera said.
After Rivera and Zach Rogers, all that's left aside from walk-ons is the freshmen. When it's third-and-sixteen and you're backed up to your own 27-yard line with an imperative first-down marker staring you down, it takes reps, reps and more reps to build trust with a wideout that was blocking in his prep team's Wing-T attack just 325 days ago.
"Oh man, it takes a pretty long time," Rivera said of the passer-receiver trust. "When you have a quarterback like Tyler, he's going to put the ball in your hands. So, it's a different situation."
Blanc, Bowles, Jason Croom and Alton "Pig" Howard represent a large percentage of a widely respected haul at pass-catcher (along with Patterson) with the 2012 class. Injuries and inconsistencies have slowed the group this summer, but each was recruited and signed for a reason.
"I'm excited about coaching all my guys but with Pig I'm excited about him getting healthy and on the field," wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. "That I'm excited about. He's worked hard all summer. He's done a great job and then that injury happened. He's been rehabbing. We want to get him back as quick as we can and get out there and get working.
"Croom was really improving, and he's got to continue to get out there. He's got a couple bruises and injuries that has kept him out a couple times. Drae is slowly getting the offense. It's a little bit slower for him, but boy last scrimmage he made a lot of good catches. You can see a lot of toughness in him. Cody Blanc has had really good practices. The biggest thing with him is consistency every single time and running fast because he's a fast guy. He's got to play fast, can't be thinking out there."
The group needs to be available for Bray and the other Tennessee quarterbacks to both build that trust and learn Chaney's playbook. Rivera says that work was progressing long before Da'Rick Rogers' suspension came about.
"Yeah, I do feel like (Bray) does (have trust in the freshmen) because you've got to realize, when you guys leave, he's still throwing balls all day and even during the special teams period Tyler is throwing. He's throwing to Drae and those guys a lot. So, I think he has a pretty good relationship with them."
Howard returned to the practice field Sunday in pads but extremely limited, sporting an obvious limp. If you choose to believe Dooley, Howard will not return prior to the Florida game on Sept. 15.
Aside from Rivera, hitting the tight end won't be much of an option for the time being. Brendan Downs (patella tendon) and Justin Meredith (hamstring) are both down. Cameron Clear is somewhere in Arizona.
What was in the conversation as the top pass-catching unit in the country took a definite blow Thursday morning. The pieces are in place for the Volunteers to post plenty of points on the board this season. Stay tuned to see if what went down is addition by subtraction or a blow that costs the Vols victories.
Patterson speaks one-on-one with InsideTennessee in the high-definition video below:
Zach Rogers responds to questions about how his role changed Thursday in this interview: