Sunshine brightens outlook

His nickname, "Sunshine," is strangely appropriate. He has been a real bright spot for Tennessee's receiving corps heading into Saturday night's opener at Cal.

Still, Austin Rogers' emergence as the "go-to" guy is something of a shock. He is just a sophomore. He played in just three games last fall before being sidelined by mononucleosis. He caught just five passes in 2006, producing 69 yards (13.8 per catch) and zero touchdowns.

Despite these modest credentials, Rogers has been the Vols' most productive and consistent receiver this fall. He had six receptions in the three major scrimmages. Only one Vol wideout (Gerald Jones with 7) had more. Rogers' six catches produced 81 receiving yards. Only one Vol wideout (Ahmad Paige with 111) had more, and 88 of those came on one play against third-team defenders.

Based on recent comments by head coach Phillip Fulmer and receiver coach Trooper Taylor, Rogers appears to have established himself as Tennessee's No. 1 receiving option. The obvious question: How did he do it?

"Making big plays," said Rogers, a 6-2, 185-pounder from Nashville. "Troop always emphasizes making big plays. A lot of receivers can go out and make the easy catch for five yards, 10 yards or whatever. He really emphasizes the playmaking ability of receivers – taking a five-yard hitch and taking it to the house like (Robert) Meachem did last year."

Unfortunately for Tennessee, Meachem is gone. So are Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. The mass exodus left UT fans wringing their hands in dismay last January. Naturally, the returning wideouts felt slighted. They felt even more slighted when fans began raving about the heralded group of wide receivers Tennessee signed last February. It was as if holdovers Rogers, Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Quintin Hancock no longer existed.

"That's been a lot of motivation," Rogers conceded. "A lot of our playmakers were lost, so we knew we were going to have to work really hard this summer, whether we had a lot of good freshmen coming in or not. The receivers are counted on to be make plays and make big chunks of yards."

Rogers certainly made chunks of yards in preseason scrimmages, reeling in passes for gains of 26, 21 and 21 yards.

Rogers, Taylor and Briscoe are listed as starters for Saturday night's opener. Hancock, junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal and freshman Denarius Moore will see action, too. So will freshman Gerald Jones if his sore hamstring permits.

Rogers says the new-look receiving corps has made amazing progress since preseason drills began in early August.

"Coming in, we had a lot of new guys who didn't even know where to line up and everything," he recalled. "We've come a long ways, especially since we lost all of our production from last year. We have a lot to prove, and I think we have a good stage to do it on come Saturday."

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