Ainge may be limited by WRs

Erik Ainge might be the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference this fall but his statistics may not suggest as much. A quarterback is only as good as his receivers, and Ainge's receivers are … well, suspect.

As head coach Phillip Fulmer recently noted: "You've got an experienced quarterback but a limited number of experienced receivers."

The "limited number" in this case is one. Lucas Taylor caught 14 passes last fall. No one else among the returning wideouts caught more than five. Making Ainge's task even tougher is the fact he must develop familiarity with a half-dozen wideout signees who won't be available – even for informal workouts – until this summer.

Since the passing game depends on the timing and coordinated efforts of the passer and the pass catchers, the first order of business at Tennessee is getting Ainge and his wideouts on the same page. That's obviously a problem, since half of Tennessee's pass-catching corps isn't even on campus yet.

"It won't be easy," Fulmer said. "But they'll have the whole summer to work on timing, independently of us."

Here's the problem with summer workouts:

There's no pads.

There's no coverage to read.

There's no defensive backs.

There's no pass rush.

There's no pressure.

Bottom line: Comparing summer workouts to fall games is like comparing 18 holes at your local Putt-Putt course to 18 holes at Augusta National.

Obviously, the best way to develop timing and cohesion is with the pads on, the defensive backs covering, the pass rushers blitzing and the pressure at full throttle. Half of Tennessee's wideouts will get that opportunity this spring. The other half won't get that opportunity until preseason drills begin in August.

"It's a concern, particularly with a tough schedule on the front end of the season – Cal, Southern Miss and Florida," Fulmer said. "We'll have to go really fast. I do think ability will overcome experience eventually but how fast can that happen? I don't know.

"They (receiver signees) will have to spend a lot of time on their own, studying tape and getting ready. And they'll have to spend a lot of time with Erik and Jonathan Crompton – throwing and catching – so everybody gets that feel of each other."

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe built Tennessee's 2006 attack around veteran receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. With all three departed, Cutcliffe knows the success of UT's 2007 attack will rely heavily on the development of a bunch of unproven wide receivers.

"I tell the receivers that there's nobody that's a proven playmaker at this point," the Vol aide said. "There's a lot of proving that's going to have to go on. I don't know that I can remember being as young and green at receiver at any time in my career.

"Do we have a Robert Meachem out there? None of the guys we have now are of Robert Meachem's status in any form or fashion. Can they get there? That remains to be seen."

Tennessee's staff is reluctant to use freshmen, since they generally have a lot to learn before being able to contribute. But Cutcliffe said getting a freshman ready to help at receiver is "not nearly as difficult" as it is at some other positions.

"If you can run and catch, we can do what we have to do schematically to make it a little easier," the coordinator said. "We can put a guy in a place where he's not reading coverages and doing different things."


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