Brother out, brother in

They have the same last name. They have virtually identical physiques. They have very similar facial features.

Now Tennessee football fans are going to find out if brothers Brad and Jeff Cottam also have the same skill level. With Brad sidelined 2-3 months due to a wrist injury, Jeff has stepped into his older brother's first-team tight end spot heading into Saturday night's season opener at California.

Brad, a fifth-year senior, caught 14 passes last season. Jeff, a sophomore, did not catch a pass last fall but is slightly heavier and more aggressive than his big brother. How well he can fill Brad's shoes looms as a key to this game and to this season.

"Brad brings more experience because he's played in big games and done well," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He's probably a little better route-runner and receiver at this point but Jeff is getting better at those.

"Jeff brings a more physical presence than Brad did. He's bigger (6-8, 270 versus 6-8, 260) and stronger. He's able to handle himself with defensive ends and linebackers, the people he would be asked to block."

The tight end duo of Chris Brown and Brad Cottam was supposed to play a major role in the Vol passing game this fall, relieving some of the pressure on an inexperienced corps of Tennessee receivers. Now that one of the senior tight ends is sidelined, can the wideouts carry more of the load? Fulmer thinks so.

"The receivers have taken the challenge of losing a great player like Robert Meachem and two more players like Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, who were very productive (in 2006) for us," Fulmer said.

Sophomore Austin Rogers, who missed much of last fall with mononucleosis, has had an excellent preseason and appears to be the Vols' most dependable receiver. Juniors Josh Briscoe and Lucas Taylor have had their moments, as has sophomore Quintin Hancock. Junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal showed great speed but suspect hands in scrimmages, while freshmen Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones were surprisingly productive.

"Rogers been a very good leader, and Briscoe has," Fulmer said. "Lucas Taylor is quiet guy but he has been very productive. And there are some young ones we're enthused about – O'Neal, Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones and a few others."

In addition to wide receiver, Tennessee is inexperienced at offensive guard, defensive tackle, cornerback and kicker. That's a concern since the season opens with games at Cal, vs. Southern Miss, at Florida. The Vols return their entire 2006 coaching staff, however, along with experienced players at some key positions. That may help get them through the season-opening gauntlet.

"I certainly think it would," Fulmer said, "We've been together as a staff a good period of time, and we have a number of guys that have played in big ballgames."

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