Trooper has new challenge

The challenge has changed this spring for Tennessee wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor. Last year, he was charged with motivating a veteran group of receivers who had underachieved. This year, he's got to whip into shape an inexperienced group.

``It seems like every year I start with a challenge,'' Taylor said.

That includes his first year, when running backs Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston hadn't lived up to their hype. But in 2004, each rushed for more than 1,000 yards – the first time that's happened in school history.

``Last year, the receivers hadn't produced and they had a lot of talent and potential,'' Taylor said.

True enough. Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith had been OK, but not difference makers, or even dependable. Although Meachem led the team in receiving his first two years, he hadn't played to his immense ability.

In 2006, however, Meachem set a school record with 1,298 receiving yards to go with 71 catches and 11 touchdowns. He has worked himself into being a probable first-round draft choice. Swain caught a career-high 49 passes despite playing half the season with a bum ankle. Smith had a career-high 39 catches.

That trio combined for 159 catches, 2,439 yards and 22 touchdowns.

But this season, Tennessee doesn't return a receiver with more than 14 catches. The combined total of the group: 26 catches.

``Now, all the talent is gone,'' Taylor said. ``I love that kind of a challenge and I look forward to seeing how it's going to pan out.''

Does Tennessee have enough talent at receiver to generate a prolific passing game?

``I think the spring will answer that,'' Taylor said.

Lasts season, at the behest of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, the Vols didn't rotate seven or eight receivers. The top three got the majority of snaps. Two others worked into the mix.

That's the way it will be this season. But that philosophy has stunted the growth of this year's wideouts.

``One of the downfalls to that is the guys behind (the top receivers) didn't get very much playing time,'' Taylor said.

Still, Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Austin Rogers have played enough to understand the system. Slick Shelley and Quintin Hancock both were limited by injuries last season. Ja'Kouri Williams has moved from tailback to receiver fulltime.

``What I challenge my guys to do is go out there and make it to where the offensive coordinator wants them on the field,'' Trooper Taylor said. ``Rather than going to two tight ends, he wants four wides. But they're going to have to earn it.

``They're not only competing with the guys in our room, they're competing with the tailbacks and tight ends and fullbacks because we're going to put the best 11 on the field. That's one of the great things about Coach Cutcliffe's offense. It allows you to put the best 11 out there.''

Here is Trooper Taylor's evaluation of his receivers this spring.

Lucas Taylor: ``I like his work ethic. I think his athletic ability is there. I think the experience is what he's lacking because he didn't play a bunch, but I'm hoping he has matured more since high school and that he's going to be able to understand the game better.''

Briscoe: ``Speed. He's one of the guys that can change the field in a heart beat. The thing I want to see from him is toughness. I want to make sure he'll make the tough catch and take care of the ball. The few times he got a chance to have a ball in a game … he ended up putting it on the ground. When he gets that part of his toughness down, he's going to be big time. And his leadership is unbelievable.''

Rogers: ``Austin has got to stay healthy. He can't have a hamstring, he can't have an elbow or a shoulder. I told him his whole quote for this year is: `You can't make the club in the tub.' You've got to get out of the training room and get on that football field. That's my challenge to Austin.''

Hancock: ``If he hadn't hurt the hamstring, I felt he'd done enough in two-a-days to show he could make some plays for us. But it's tough for a freshman. He's got to understand the coverages better and how to react to them and be on the same page with the quarterback.''

Shelley: ``If you get in the same area code with Slick, he's going to catch it. What Slick's got to do is stay out of the training room. He's got to get physically tough. … Hands wise, I'm real excited about what Slick can bring to the table. Now I just need him to stay healthy.''

Taylor said the returning receivers learned work ethic from the departed receivers.

``Ja'Kouri Williams was telling me how good it was to be in that room with Meachem and Swain and Smith because he watched them transform their work habits and fundamentals onto the field,'' Taylor said.

``I think it's going to be huge for our guys to continue the same work ethic those three set.''


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