Lucas Taylor appeared ready to assume the Meachem mantle last season, recording 41 grabs for 618 yards – an average of 15.1 yards per catch – in the first six games. A shoulder injury seriously hampered him thereafter, however, as Taylor caught just 32 passes for 382 yards – averaging 11.9 per catch – over the final eight games.
Taylor, who finished 2007 with 73 catches for precisely 1,000 yards, will be used sparingly during spring practice in an effort to keep him healthy for fall. That means greater opportunities for the other wideouts.
Austin Rogers (56 catches, 624 yards) and Josh Briscoe (56 catches, 557 yards) were productive receivers last fall but made few game-changing plays. Ditto for Quintin Hancock (16 catches, 165 yards). Denarius Moore (14 catches, 212 yards) showed some big-play ability by averaging 15.1 yards per catch. Gerald Jones (11 catches, 111 yards) rallied late after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring injury. Kenny O'Neal averaged a whopping 29.5 yards per reception but dropped more balls than he caught (2). Ahmad Paige, Todd Campbell and Tyler Maples redshirted.
With Tennessee looking for a deep threat who can stretch the field vertically, guys like Paige, Jones and O'Neal will get long looks this spring.
"This will be a crucial spring for Gerald Jones and Ahmad Paige as we see where they can get themselves to," Fulmer said, "particularly in the absence of Lucas Taylor, who will miss a lot of spring practice contact overcoming his shoulder injury."
In addition to trying to show off for Fulmer, Tennessee's wideouts will be trying to impress a new position coach. Latrell Scott succeeded Trooper Taylor last January, and is looking to put his stamp on the route-running brigade.
"I get after my guys because I expect a lot out of these wide receivers," Scott said earlier this year. "I think at that skill position those guys are the best athletes on the field. I want those guys to show people and command respect. We want to create a physical presence at the wide receiver position."
A former tight end at Hampton College in Virginia, Scott expects his troops to be as tough, mentally and physically, as he was.
"I want to instill my personal beliefs and values in these guys," the new Vol aide said. "I want these guys to continue to be tough, continue to work hard and continue to make plays."
Although he was something of a flop in 2007, O'Neal could be a player to watch in 2008. After struggling with his assignments last fall, the former Florida State standout should have a better grasp of the offense this fall. In addition, he should benefit from the fact UT will rely less on the no-huddle offense this season.
"We will have the ability to do that," Fulmer said of the no-huddle attack. "But, with a new system and everything, we're going to be much more standard as we start off. The new clock rule (40 seconds between plays) will allow us to do some of those things at the line of scrimmage that we did in the no-huddle last year."