Rookie reinforcements

Each spring Tennessee's football coaches say they plan to rely on the players already in school because "You can't count on true freshmen." The refrain was a little different this spring, however.

Consider this recent quote from offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe:

"Obviously, I think this offensive team will have some people come in this fall that could be factors in it."

That may not be an indictment of the players already on hand but it's certainly no endorsement. Clearly, Cutcliffe is dissatisfied ... and with good reason.

The receiving corps remains a glaring concern. None of the holdover wideouts did enough in spring scrimmages to suggest they are ready to compete at the Southeastern Conference level. Quintin Hancock showed some flashes but the Vols are still waiting on Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe to prove themselves. That's why juco transfer Kenny O'Neal, prep school grad Brent Vinson and a half-dozen freshman signees will get long, long, long looks in August.

Could incoming freshmen make an impact at the other offensive positions? Probably not. Here's why:

Although he missed most of spring practice with a knee injury, Erik Ainge is a proven quarterback. So is Jonathan Crompton, who started against Arkansas last fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Stephens has had a full year to learn the system. With the Vols trying some no-huddle stuff this year, incoming freshman B.J. Coleman will need a year of seasoning before he's ready to compete for playing time.

Tennessee's tailback trio of Arian Foster, LaMarcus Coker and Montario Hardesty is talented and experienced. Foster has 10 career starts, Coker and Hardesty four each. Unless heralded prep signee Lennon Creer wows the coaches in August, he probably will redshirt.

The tight end quartet of Chris Brown, Brad Cottam, Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker is as good as any foursome in college football. The Vols have no tight end signee joining the mix but, even if they did, he'd have to wait his turn.

Although the offensive line remains a work in progress, the mental demands of the position virtually preclude significant help from a true freshman. If any newcomer contributes in 2007 it almost certainly will be mid-term enrollee Cody Pope, who already is on campus but missed spring drills with a foot injury.

Even an optimist like Cutcliffe struggled to put a positive spin on the offensive performance this spring. Instead, he resorted to vague comments such as "The attitude has been positive and the guys have been good to work with."

The coordinator didn't expect to solidify all 11 starting spots in 15 spring practices, of course. Still, you get the idea that his troops didn't make as much progress as Cutcliffe had hoped.

"Did we accomplish everything we wanted? No," he said. "But I've been real pleased with what we've gotten done with the no-huddle operation. I think we've done that exceptionally well, and I think it will help us. To what extent remains to be seen.

"From a personnel standpoint, I still think we've got a long way to go.... But, somehow, some way, we've got to find a way to get there. "

Don't be surprised if a few of the young receivers who join the mix in August help the Vols to "get there."


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