The question most asked by Big Orange faithful is: who's the Vols second wide receiver to go with all-American candidate Kelley Washington? No doubt that is an ongoing concern with the season just 59 days away, but perhaps there are other positions that may prove more significant as the season unfolds.
To begin with: Tennessee has two big-time receivers in Washington and tight end/H-back Jason Witten and a bevy of young wideouts with outstanding potential. The Vols also have the type of speed in Leonard Scott and Jonathan Wade that few could match. I know Scott, a fifth-year senior, hasn't lived up to expectations as a receiver to this point, but he looked better than he ever has during spring drills, and he doesn't have another season of college track.
That means this year is his last best chance to impress NFL scouts and assure himself a share of pro football's riches. That's powerful incentive and could provide the focus that Scott hasn't had to this point. If that increased focus translates to better hands (a result of increased concentration) and more disciplined routes, Scott would be all the second receiver Tennessee needs, and an offensive threat opposing defenses couldn't ignore.
It could also means millions to Scott , who will be picked by some NFL team regardless of how his senior season stacks up. The pros just can't pass on speed like Scott brings to the table and a solid season could be the difference in being a choice in the first three rounds or in the last three. That's a big jump in terms of income brackets and opportunity for future earnings.
Although Scott hasn't shown signs of being a reliable pass catcher in his first three years, he is a physically tough player who has excelled on special teams and as a part-time tailback with big-play ability. So we're not talking about a track guy who lacks the mental make-up to be a receiver, we're talking a football player with blazing speed who is striving to become a receiver.
For what's it worth (and I don't pretend it's a lot), I thought this spring Scott looked at least a notch above what I've seen from him in the past. He looked stronger, more mature and better focused. Whether he can take it to the next level in game competition remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a new and improved Leonard Scott on the field for UT this fall.
Incoming freshman Jonathan Wade is at least as fast as Scott and many insiders think he has more disposable speed. That is to say: he doesn't have the long stride of a Scott which makes it easier to get into and out of his cuts on pass routes. However Wade hasn't played wide receiver since his freshman year of high school, and it is uncertain as to how quickly he can adjust to Tennessee's offensive system, which requires receivers to make numerous reads of coverage and alternation of routes.
Wade has enough talent that he should be able to contribute this year. Again he has the type of speed offensive coordinators can't walk away from, and defensive coordinators can't forget about. With either Scott or Wade on the field, defenses will have to provide some type of help over the top from the safety. Put all three in at the same time with Witten at H-back and Derrick Tinsley in a one-back set, and DCs might have to check their heart rates.
The Vols also have a group of five young wide receivers that could be ready to blossom this season. Redshirt freshman C.J. Fayton came to Tennessee as one of the nation's Top 15 quarterbacks and just needs time to adjust to receiver. He has the speed, size and skill to be first rate — all he needs now is experience. Sophomore Montrell Jones is another player with the size and skill to become a quality wideout. Jones isn't a blazer, but he has enough pick-up to be an excellent complementary receiver. Then there's most improved offensive player Tony Brown, a sophomore, along with true freshmen Jason Allen and Chris Hannon, a pair of big, athletic newcomers. When you add it all up: it's easy to envision a Vol receiving corps that could easily match UT's 2001 unit. That's especially true when you factor in Donte Stallworth's injury, that cost him nearly half the regular season, and Washington's inexperience.
Tinsley will also get some reps in the wide receiver rotation and has the talent to become a big-play weapon of the first order. Plus the Vols appear to have a better set of pass catchers among their running backs.
Compare these circumstances at receiver to those three years ago when the Vols defended their national title and aimed to party like it was 1999. Of course, a pair of two-point losses in the regular season ended Tennessee's chance to reach the title tilt. That's four points from an undefeated season with a receiving corps that featured Cedric Wilson in the role of Kelley Washington and John Finlayson in the role of Jason Witten. The second receiver that year was David Martin while Eric Parker and Bobby Graham were the back-ups. Don't get me wrong, Wilson is a solid receiver, but at 5-11, 165, with 4.55 speed he wasn't exactly intimidating. Despite these limitations, Wilson drew double-team coverage all season because no one else stepped up as a consistent pass catcher for the Vols. Barring injury this Tennessee team shouldn't have those type of problems.
No the Vols are much better off this year than in 1999, particularly when talking about the top two targets and the quality of depth. That's why I'm not as concerned about the second wide receiver as much as I am about the second tight end, or second quarterback, or the second fullback. For that matter the second-team center might be of equal concern. But those are issues for another day and something to ponder while you worry about the 20 Vols who reportedly need the summer session to make their grades. Ironically, and in keeping with the today's theme, it's the second summer session that is the source of UT's consternation.