UT may 'Cut' receiver rotation

Tennessee has a long list of receivers with star credentials.

But none of them have become stars yet, and some of them won't play much this fall if they don't perform at a consistent level.

That's the stern message delivered by new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who rates dependability over talent at wide receiver.

Cutcliffe made that clear when he was asked how many receivers he would like in the rotation this season.

``Generally, we've played less than (six or seven),'' Cutcliffe said. ``The reason is, I've never had that many to trust. These guys have got to be great route runners. We've got to know where they are, what they're doing. You can't fool the quarterback. You ask any quarterback, they want to know their people.

``It's an unusual situation when you have four, five or six that can play. There were times in the past when we played a lot, but all those guys we knew and trusted. A lot of that is going to depend on them. If they're not doing the same things over and over and over in practice, if they're not consistent, they won't play. They have to understand that going in.''

On the first day of practice, receivers dropped 33 passes, but many of those were by walk-ons.

Two of Tennessee's most talented wideouts – Robert Meachem and Bret Smith – haven't displayed the best of hands after the first few days of spring drills. Meachem, a junior-to-be who caught a team-high 29 passes last season, has yet to have that breakout season. Smith, who will be a senior, caught just 21 passes last season. Neither averaged more than 14 yards per catch. In fact, UT's top five receivers last year combined to average just over 12 yards per catch – an indication of how few big plays they made.

Meachem and Smith had trouble with drops last season. And they've been warned that if they don't catch the ball consistently, they won't play.

As receivers coach Trooper Taylor likes to say: ``A player who won't is no better than a player who can't.''

One of the most impressive receivers to date has been Jayson Swain, who caught 27 passes as a junior but failed to score a touchdown. Swain and a trio of freshmen – Slick Shelly, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe – have displayed the best hands.

Asked if he likes the offensive talent he'd inherited, Cutcliffe took aim at the underachieving wideouts.

``I think there is some athleticism, but you've got to be good at playing,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Just like the receivers. We've got some guys that can run and have good size, but I couldn't tell you whether they're receivers or not. They've been working hard to become that in the offseason. I don't think I know enough right now so say that we can be good enough.''

Ouch! If that doesn't motivate the receivers, what will?

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer also expressed his displeasure with the 2005 receiving corps.

``The wide receivers need to step up and be productive,'' Fulmer said. ``They need to be where they're supposed to be, catch the football, make plays, block. We had plays that could have been taken much farther if we'd had downfield blocking.''

One play that killed the Vols was the fumble by Cory Anderson as he was about to score on a screen pass against Alabama. The ball rolled through the end zone for a touchback. Instead of UT taking a 10-3 late in the game, Alabama got the ball and moved for a game-winning field goal.

One reason Anderson fumbled: He was hit by an Alabama defensive back that should have been blocked by a UT receiver who was standing around watching the play.

That kind of effort – or lack thereof – won't be tolerated, Fulmer said.

``It's not rocket science,'' Fulmer said. ``It's playing football the way it needs to be played.''

Fulmer said he's got three guys who could be ``big-time SEC receivers'' in Swain, Meachem and Smith. But none has developed into the play maker many anticipated.

If they do become play makers, the Vols' offense will be much better than the one that ranked 101 in the nation in scoring (18.6 points per game), 90th in total offense (326.3), 80th in rushing (128.3) and 98th in passing efficiency.

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