Skilled at skill positions

Tennessee has been blessed with tremendous talent at the offensive skill positions during the past two decades but in 2002 the Vols discovered how the other half lives.

Tailback Cedric Houston ran for just 779 yards that fall, barely half the total of 1,464 compiled a year earlier by Travis Stephens. And the wideout corps was so void of playmakers that tight end Jason Witten led the team in receiving yards (493) and touchdowns (5).

With deficiencies at tailback and wideout, the 2002 Vols averaged just 22.8 points per game -- lowest of the Phil Fulmer era.

Now, thanks to more productive recruiting, the Big Orange once again ranks with the South's best programs at the running back and receiver positions.

Tailback Gerald Riggs, coming off a 1,107-yard season in 2004, is being projected as a leading Heisman Trophy contender. The question is: Can he do the job now that he's a marked man?

"It will be interesting to see if Gerald can carry that load and manage it from a maturity standpoint," Fulmer said at the recent SEC Media Days. "I have seen a lot of growth in Gerald over the last year and a half or so."

After splitting carries with Houston in 2004, Riggs may have to be a workhorse in 2005, since his backups – redshirt freshmen Arian Foster and Ja'Kouri Williams – have never participated in a college game. Former walk-on David Yancey has played sparingly, while incoming signees Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker are fresh out of high school.

"When we have been our best we have had two or three guys that have been able to compete and contribute at tailback," Fulmer said. "I hope we can find a couple of youngsters that can come on and do that for us."

Whereas depth is a concern at tailback, that is hardly the case at receiver. The Vols' top five – Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, Chris Hannon, C.J. Fayton and Bret Smith – match up with just about any quintet in college football.

"Our wide receiver group as a whole should be one of the best in the league," Fulmer said. "I don't know if we exactly have the premier receivers -- the guys like Donte' Stallworth -- but Robert Meachem and Chris Hannon could be those kind of guys."

Throw in sophomore Bill Grimes and true freshman Josh Briscoe, a mid-term enrollee who made a strong impression in spring practice, and the Vols appear to be loaded at receiver.

"As a unit," Fulmer said, "I am really excited about them."

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