Are rookie receivers ready?

You'd never guess it from the Game 1 loss to Cal, but Tennessee has several big-play threats at the wide receiver position. They just didn't make any big plays.

The reason? Youth. Inexperience. Freshman jitters. Perhaps all of the above.

Last February the Vols signed perhaps the finest assemblage of receiving talent in college football. Junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal, along with freshmen Denarius Moore, Brent Vinson, Gerald Jones and Ahmad Paige are all superior prospects with big-time ability. They just didn't exhibit it in the opener. Moore caught one pass for a nine-yard gain. Vinson, Jones, Paige and O'Neal whiffed.

Still, this is a gifted group of receivers. That's why Tennessee's offensive coordinator is eager to get them more involved in the attack.

"As we grow I expect our weapons to grow," David Cutcliffe said. "It's not a reflection on Austin (Rogers) or Lucas (Taylor) or anyone else but we're going to play the guys that are ready to play. I think this team has a chance to continue to grow offensively and have more people touch the ball."

The coordinator would love to have his talented young wideouts "touch the ball" a lot in Saturday night's home opener vs. Southern Miss.

"You'd like to see this starting to flow in that direction," Cutcliffe said, "and I think it's going to some."

Before the rookies can make big plays, however, they must stop making mental mistakes. That was a significant problem in the Game 1 loss to Cal.

With Tennessee trying to rally in the fourth quarter, both of its starting wideouts were sidelined. Rogers was injured and Taylor was having a bleeding cut patched up. Vinson got an opportunity to show his stuff at this point but made several costly miscues.

"We had a player pick up some extra playing time because of an injury on the field," Cutcliffe noted, "and there were four or five busts during that series of time. I told him that's a perfect example (of why the rookies don't play more)."

As Tennessee's young receivers become increasingly comfortable and knowledgeable they will be integrated into the offense more and more. That should give the Vols the home-run threat they lacked in Game 1.

Quarterback Erik Ainge isn't complaining about his receiving corps but he'd love to have a big-play guy capable of turning a 15-yard hitch into a 70-yard touchdown. Until he has that luxury, Tennessee must be content to score its points the hard way – by stringing together a lot of short gains.

"You put yourself at greater risk the more third downs you have to make," Ainge noted. "You're not going to be 100 percent (converting) on third down. If you're 50 percent on third down, then you're playing good football.

"If you have to get six first downs to score a touchdown, obviously the odds of scoring are a lot less. Obviously, the big plays make it a lot easier for us on offense."


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