Ainge recruits Meachem

Tennessee's football coaches are splitting their time these days between preparing for the Outback Bowl and recruiting. Junior quarterback Erik Ainge can relate. He's trying to balance the same two activities.

In addition to preparing for a salty Penn State defense, Ainge is trying to re-recruit Vol teammate Robert Meachem. The All-America receiver is deciding whether to return for his senior year or turn pro. Having a vested interest, Ainge hopes to convince his go-to guy to return for 2007, even if it means doing a little recruiting.

"Oh, yeah … as much as I can," Ainge said. "But I try not to hound him too much because I don't want to pester him."

Even so, Ainge's persuasion technique can be about as subtle as a heart attack.

"If we're watching film and he catches a touchdown, I'll say, ‘You can get about 10 or 15 of those next year,'" Ainge said with a chuckle. "I'm just joking around with him."

And Meachem's reaction to such prodding?

"He just smiles," Ainge said, "and keeps his thoughts to himself."

Meachem undoubtedly is the top player on UT's recruiting/re-recruiting list this winter. The Vols already are losing senior receivers Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. If Meachem bolts for the NFL, Tennessee will lose three guys who accounted for 148 catches, 2,322 receiving yards and 22 receiving touchdowns. Clearly, getting Meachem back is crucial to Tennessee's 2007 passing attack.

"It's very important," Ainge conceded. "We've got some guys coming in and we've got some good receivers here. We'll be able to be successful whether he comes back or not. But you watched how he can take over a football game, like he's done several times this year. NOT getting a guy back like that would obviously hurt us, and we'd have some work to do catching up at that position.

"But we're planning on him coming back."

There is no way to place a value on what Meachem meant to the 2006 Vols. He caught a team-high 67 balls, 25 more than runner-up Swain. His school-record 1,265 receiving yards doubled Swain's total of 604. His 11 TD grabs matched the total of Swain (6) and Smith (5) combined.

Meachem is, in a word, a playmaker.

"You can put it in his general vicinity," Ainge said, "and you know he's going to come down with the ball or it's going to be incomplete…. You let go of it and you say, ‘Get it done, Robert,' and he does nine times out of ten."

Given how vital Meachem is to the continued success of the Vol passing game, Ainge is tempted to plead with his teammate to stick around for another year. To date, though, Ainge has resisted that temptation.

"I try not to bug him too much; everybody wants to know what he's going to do," he said. "He knows that he'll figure it out."

A deeply religious young man, Meachem is praying and fasting as he searches for an answer to his go-or-stay decision.

"I think God has a big role to play with that, along with his family, and he (Meachem) knows that," Ainge said. "When it comes time for him to make a decision, I think he'll know.

"It's tough for him right now but, obviously, we're looking forward to having him back here next year and we're PLANNING on having him back here next year, so we can do even better things than we did this year."

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