The lack of receiving threats has impacted the running game and limited the passing attack. It has also allowed opposing defenses the luxury of paying extra attention to Jason Witten which has curtailed his production.
Despite facing a never-ending series of jams, chips, grabs, shivers and double teams, Witten has put up respectable numbers this year, especially with Washington back in the lineup. Against Florida Witten caught six passes for 61 yards and was a big target for quarterback Casey Clausen on third down.
If that conspicuously absent second wideout is found from an ever-expanding group of suspects, Witten will take his game to new heights much like he did in last seasons Citrus Bowl vs. Michigan. With Washington and Donte Stallworth drawing defensive fire that New Years Day, Witten worked himself free for six catches and 125 yards, highlighted by a 64-yard touchdown in which he split Wolverine safeties like Secretariat racing past a pair of pack ponies.
The latest move to make the UT offense more air friendly is the addition of a true freshman quarterback James Banks Jr. to an already murky mix. Banks joins true freshmen teammates Jonathan Wade and Chris Hannon in a group that includes red-shirt freshmen C.J. Fayton and Jomo Fagan, true sophomore Montrell Jones, red-shirt sophomore Tony Brown and red-shirt senior Leonard Scott, who hasnt shown any signs of being able to consistently catch the football during half a decade on The Hill.
Admittedly with four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior this receiving corp is greener than a sack of Granny Smith apples and not half as sweet. Jones and Brown are the only true receivers in the traditional sense of the term and only Brown has shown a gift for grab. Jones has complained about not getting the ball more, but with several drops he has only himself to blame. Banks, Fayton and Hannon were all high school quarterbacks while Wade and Fagan were cornerbacks. Scott was a tailback.
Before the season it looked as if it would take extraordinary circumstances for Banks to move to wide receiver since he was the only QB besides C.J. Leak. Apparently weve entered that ex-realm and Banks is set to see duty against Rutgers on Saturday, thus sacrificing a year of eligibility.
The only way to make that a profitable move is for the Vols to give Banks every opportunity to win the job or at least crack the five-receiver rotation. Though he got off to a slow start this preseason, Banks is undoubtedly a superior athlete and playmaker who should show his ability in short order. Wade and Hannon are also expected to see significant playing time and are making progress.
Tennessee is currently intensely recruiting the best wide receiver prospects nationally and hopeful of signing several. Its likely some from the current WR group will get a look on defense next spring. The Vols are listed among the leaders with 7 of the 10 prospects although theyre not clear leaders for any on this elite list. With the self-proclaimed The Future turning Tennessee into a thing of the past next spring, wide receiver becomes a more pressing priority.
However theres another reason that UTs recruiting success at receiver is critical. You see it could enhance Wittens senior season or it could be the deciding factor for his early departure as a junior. Witten is currently projected as a first-round pick and he might prefer the NFL where hell see single coverage to the coverage by committee hell see in college without anyone to help carry the receiving load.
Without Witten and Washington you have to wonder whether Clausen would stick for a senior season that could lower his value on the NFL market. Clausen is also projected as a first-round pick and might opt out early figuring a sub par senior season could cost him millions.
Thats why the move of Banks makes more sense than ever. Given a season of on-the-job training he could well become the established big-play receiving threat that convinces Tennessees most prized juniors to return to the Big Orange fold. Many analysts regarded Banks as a better receiver prospect coming out of high school than a quarterback and he was a Parade All-American QB. In truth Banks may in time remind many UT fans of Washington.
Of course finding a replacement for Witten is another red-letter aim for Vol recruiters, irrespective of his decision, and finding 6-5, 265-pound replacements with 4.58 speed isnt easy.
Fortunately, Tennessee is very involved with the nations No. 1 tight end prospect, Greg Olsen who checks in a 6/61/2, 248 pounds with 4.6 speed. A product of Wayne Hills High School in Wayne, N.J., Olsen caught 27 passes for 560 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. On defense, he recorded 91 tackles with 12 sacks to earn all-American honors and lead the Patriots to the Group 3 state title game.
Olsen could play either defensive end or tight end in college but prefers offense where he feels he presents many of the same match-up problems that Witten does.
I just think my size and ability to run makes it a tough match-up for the defense, Olsen said for a Rocky Top News interview. You know they put me at tight end and I get a match up with a linebacker and I can outrun them. Then I can split out with a D-back and I have a size advantage over him. I think that presents a mismatch.
An excellent student with a 3.8 gpa and a score of 1210 on his SAT, Olsen also plays basketball and competes in track and field. He averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds last year and anchored the county champion 4-by-100 meter relay team.
Olsen has attracted over 50 scholarship offers and has narrowed his list down to eight schools, including: Notre Dame, Tennessee, Miami, Florida, Florida State, Stanford, Syracuse and USC.
He made an unofficial visit to UT this summer and will take an official visit after his high school football season ends. He also has an official visit set to Notre Dame where his brother, Chris, signed as a quarterback this year.
Beating Notre Dame will be difficult, but Tennessee offers a good opportunity for early playing time whether Witten stays or goes. And thats what Olsen lists as his top criteria for selecting a college.
The main thing is that theyre one of the top programs in the country, he said of UT. Theyre up there every year contending for the championships, SEC or national championship. I think where they stand at tight end gives me a good chance as a player. You know behind Jason Witten at tight end they dont really have anybody, so I think as a freshman I would be able to come in and play behind him and when they go to two tight ends, Id be able to play with the best tight end in the country. So I think that just provides me with a real good situation.
The Vols did sign highly-rated Aaron Kirkland this season, but the true freshman shows better early potential as a blocker than a seam exploiting receiver. In fact its options are so limited that Tennessee has been forced to move offensive tackle Victor McClure into the role of second tight end, and that doesnt take any pressure off Witten if the Vols need to pass out of their two tight end set.
Well keep a close eye on UTs pursuit of big-play threats at wide receiver and tight end: its more critical to Tennessees future than The Future.