Wideouts vastly improved?

It should come as no surprise that the wide receivers have made more progress since last fall than any area of Tennessee's team. After their putrid showing in 2005, they had the most progress to make.

Still, it's noteworthy that head coach Phillip Fulmer is excited about the wideout corps heading into Saturday's opener against California.

"I believe the most improved position on our team is our wide receivers," he says. "We certainly need them to play at the level they're capable of playing. From where they came from at the end of last season to where they are right now bodes well for them."

Vol fans will be glad to learn that the most significant improvement has come in the most significant aspect of receiver play.

"Catching the football consistently," Fulmer says. "In the spring we made some strides; in the fall we've been much better."

Seniors Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, along with junior Robert Meachem, have earned spots in the Game 1 rotation. Three sophomores are battling for the fourth and fifth spots. Fulmer notes that Lucas Taylor is "right there," that Austin Rogers "has shown significant improvement" and that Josh Briscoe has shown some flashes. The head man also says he's "really happy with what Quintin Hancock has gotten done," although the flashy freshman's availability for Saturday is iffy due to a sore hamstring.

Receivers coach Trooper Taylor says Hancock must get out of the whirlpool and onto the practice field if he's going to see action this weekend.

"I told him, 'You can't make the club in the tub.' You either get out there or you'll be over there (on the sidelines) with me," Taylor said. "It won't be personal. If he can't go 100 percent I'm not going to put him in front of a guy and let him go 90 percent."

Hancock, a 6-2, 185-pounder from St. Augustine, Fla., starred in preseason scrimmages, leading all Vols in receptions (10), receiving yards (149) and touchdowns (four). That raised some eyebrows.

"He hasn't been in a game yet, so that (raising eyebrows) is not hard to do," Taylor said. "As far as practice, he's exciting, catching it in traffic and everything. Whether it's the fourth team or the first team, if you're catching balls like he is, obviously, the potential is there. We've just got to get him on his assignments."

Based on their scrimmage performances, this year's wideouts appear to be giving their all. That wasn't always the case last season. Taylor thinks that's the biggest difference between 2005 and 2006.

"I really think it's in their effort," he said. "Last year you didn't see guys diving for balls very much. You didn't see them getting after people blocking. Now they understand what we're looking for, as far as tempo and work ethic.

"If you get a guy giving you his best effort - and he's already a good athlete - you've got a chance to be successful. And I think they've done that."

Although several players aren't blocking well enough to suit him - Hancock and Briscoe, in particular - Taylor is generally pleased with the receiver outlook.

"I feel good about it," he said. "I feel good about what they're going to do. I don't think they're going to have missed assignments and drop a bunch of balls. If I thought that I would put them out there. We'd get in three-tights (three-tight end sets) and hand it off.

"I really feel good about it, and I think they feel good about it. That's what's important. I think they feel good about what they're doing."

Better play from the wideouts should upgrade a Tennessee passing game that ranked ninth among SEC teams in passing efficiency and 10th in passing offense a year ago. Of course, the guys making the passes have to do their jobs, too.

"I think a lot of it goes with the quarterbacks, how they're throwing the ball," Taylor said. "If they're throwing on time, as we're coming out of breaks, that allows us to get the separation we need to make plays."

With adequate play at quarterback, Taylor is convinced Tennessee's play at the receiver spots will be better this fall. Their preseason work has been encouraging.

"Obviously, it's a credit to the way those guys have worked," he said. "They bought into it and they understand how much hard work it takes."

Fulmer hinted that the work ethic among last year's wideouts left a lot to be desired.

"We're looking for the guys who have the complete game - get lined up right, run the right route, block their butts off and help the team win," he said. "I'm not looking for selfishness or prima donnas who are concerned about anything but taking care of business."


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