Wide Receiver U?

Years ago, the University of Tennessee was known as Wide Receiver U.

The Vols churned out receivers like the Miami Hurricanes churned out quarterbacks.

There was Larry Seivers, Willie Gault, Anthony Hancock, Tim McGee, Anthony Miller, Carl Pickens, Alvin Harper, Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price.

UT's cup runneth over with receivers.
But in some recent years, the well almost ran dry. In 2002, when Kelly Washington went down with an injury, the Vols passing game suffered mightily because of a dearth of talent. The leading receiver was Jason Witten with 39 – the first time a tight end led the team in receiving since Reggie Harper in 1978. In 2003, no receiver caught more than 42 passes.

Last year, Tony Brown led the team with 31 catches – the lowest total to pace the team since 1987. Robert Meachem had 459 receiving yards – the lowest to top the team since 1987.

Moreover, Tennessee has had just one first-round draft pick at receiver – Donte Stallworth in 2002 – since 1998 compared to five during a six-year period (1982-88).

This season, the Vols can reclaim the label of Wide Receiver U. Tennessee has five quality receivers capable of making a big play, five receivers capable of a 100-yard game, five receivers likely to be picked in an NFL draft.

One NFL scout told me he thinks Chris Hannon could be a first-round draft pick. He's 6-4, 193, runs a 4.35 and has long arms. He needs to improve his hands and route running, but he has skills.

He might not be the most talented of the group. Meachem is 6-3, 220 and runs a 4.45. He's physical, has good hands, runs good routes and can make big plays. Last season, he caught 25 passes for 459 yards for an impressive 18.4 yards per catch. He could be a 60-catch, 1000-yard receiver.

Bret Smith led the team with five touchdown catches on just 18 receptions. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch.

Jayson Swain is the top returning receiver with 29 for 388 yards and four scores. C.J. Fayton, who had 94 receiving yards in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, had 24 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns.

Lindy's ranks Tennessee receiving corps No. 7 in the nation, third in the SEC. The Sporting News has the Vols No. 5 in the SEC.

I rank UT's receivers No. 2 in the SEC behind Florida, which features Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson and Dallas Baker. But the Vols have more depth.

How does Tennessee rank in other categories against the rest of the SEC?
Here's a look. Defensive line: No. 1. The Vols have the league's best defensive lineman in tackle Jesse Mahelona, who had a whopping 18.5 stops behind the line last season. Tackle Justin Harrell was the defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl.

Turk McBride is a quality athlete who can play tackle or end. True freshman Demonte Bolden has star potential. Jared Hostetter shows promise. If Tony McDaniel is able to play, the Vols would go six deep at tackle.

End Parys Haralson is an All-SEC caliber player who led the team with seven sacks. Jason Hall had three sacks in a backup role. Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds are solid players.

Offensive line: No. 2 behind LSU. The Vols have the best guard tandem in the SEC in Rob Smith and Cody Douglas. Arron Sears had a better 2004 season than Michael Munoz. Albert Toeaina (6-6, 370) could emerge into a dominating player. Center Richie Gandy has made great progress from an offseason torn ACL. The only concern: Depth.

Running backs: No. 3, behind LSU and Georgia. Gerald Riggs might lead the SEC in rushing after gaining 1,107 as a backup, but the Vols don't have the quality depth of the Tigers and Bulldogs. Arian Foster is behind Riggs. Cory Anderson is the best fullback in the SEC.

Linebackers: No. 3 behind Alabama and Auburn. Kevin Simon led the team in tackles in 2003 and should be fully recovered from a torn ACL. Omar Gaither had 92 tackles, 12.5 behind the line. Jason Mitchell will start at weakside linebacker. The backups are Daniel Brooks, Marvin Mitchell, Ryan Karl and John Poe.

Quarterbacks: No. 4 behind Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama. Erick Ainge could have a huge year, given his supporting cast and another year of digesting the UT playbook. Rick Clausen is the best backup quarterback in the SEC.

Secondary: No. 6. The Vols are sound at cornerback with All-SEC Jason Allen (team-high 123 tackles at safety) and freshman All-American Roshaun Fellows. The safeties are a concern. Jonathan Hefney (174 pounds) tries to make the move from corner to free safety. Corey Campbell and Antwan Stewart will battle at strong safety. I'd like UT's secondary much better with Allen at safety and Hefney at cornerback.

The Sporting News ranks Tennessee No. 1 in the SEC at defensive line, No. 2 in the secondary, No. 3 among backfields, No. 4 at offensive line and linebacker, and No. 5 at receiver.

Nationally, Lindy's rates UT No. 3 among backfields (behind USC and Michigan) and defensive lines (behind N.C. State and Georgia), No. 5 at offensive line, No. 7 at receiver and No. 8 at linebacker.

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