Relief En Route

When last the University of Tennessee was widely known as Wide Receiver U, leg warmers were the fashion, big hair was the passion and Madonna was like a virgin, or so she sang.

Fondly Big Orange fans recalled those heady times and faithfully they await their return. In 2001, there was something of a rise in receiving excellence at UT with Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington and tight end Jason Witten stretching secondaries beyond the breaking point.

Unfortunately, like throwback jerseys, they were gone just as quickly as they came. All three left UT early to enlist in the NFL Draft. That splash of success did help spawn a recruiting coup in 2003, as the Vols landed an outstanding trio of receiver prospects in Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. Meachem became the prize and opted for the April NFL Draft after an outstanding junior season on The Hill.

That leaves the Vols without much experience or proven production entering the fall. Anyone that witnessed the annual Orange and White Game couldn't be confident that UT's air attack can equal last season's level.

With that stated the situation is far from hopeless. To begin with Tennessee would prefer a more balanced offense so supplementing the yardage total via the ground game is the top aim going into the 2007 campaign.

Plus Tennessee's current situation is one of the more dynamic examples of recruiting having an immediate impact on a team's fortunes. The additions of JC star Kenny O'Neal, prep school standout Brent Vinson along with high school All-Americans Ahmad Paige and Gerald Jones gives David Cutcliffe's charges an instant injection of speed and skill.

Considering O'Neal spent two seasons at Florida State, including a redshirt year, and Vinson spent a year strengthening his frame and refining his game at Hargrave there is a lot more experience than one would expect from newcomers.

Additionally, Paige, of Sterlington, La., is an advanced student of the wide receiver's art. He runs excellent pass routes, has exquisite timing on his jumps and can catch the ball in traffic. Jones didn't play as much receiver in high school as he did quarterback and running back, but he has the athletic ability to upgrade UT's pass-catching corps.

Early reviews of off-season workouts indicate these signees are showing the stuff to make a difference for Tennessee this fall. Of course, they will all have to learn the reads in UT's rather complex offensive system, and the freshmen will need to continue adding the size and strength needed to defeat press coverage. Still there is definitely relief on the way to a position that appears to be on life support.

It doesn't mean the Vols will surpass last season's production through the air, neither does it suggest the Vols won't miss Meachem, Smith and Swain. However it's not a stretch to conclude the Vols will be faster, deeper and more talented at wide receiver in 2007 than they were in 2006. Given the state of Tennessee's receiver set in the spring that's saying a heck of a lot.


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