Can wideouts carry the load?

With Kelley Washington sidelined indefinitely due to head and neck injuries, Tennessee's receiving corps will be short-handed Saturday against top-ranked Miami. Obviously, this greatly reduces the Vols' chances of springing a major upset.

''I wish I had all our bullets to shoot,'' head coach Phillip Fulmer said earlier this week. ''But this team will rally to the challenge.''

Tennessee fans can only hope so. If the remaining wideouts don't pick up some of the slack in Washington's absence, the Vols could suffer a humiliating loss. Unfortunately, UT's receivers have been a major disappointment this fall -- routinely lining up incorrectly, blowing assignments, breaking off routes prematurely and occasionally dropping catchable balls. Things have gotten so bad that junior walk-on Ryan Boswell played almost the entire fourth quarter of last Saturday's 18-10 win at South Carolina. In fact, he made a clutch catch on third-and-four to help Tennessee maintain possession in the final minutes.

Asked why Boswell was in the game at such a critical juncture, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders offered an indictment of the Vol wideout corps:

''He's not going to go out and beat many All-American corners running routes outside,'' the coordinator said, ''but he'll get lined up right, be where he's supposed to be and do what he's supposed to do. He won't make the mistake that'll beat you in the crucial situation.''

Fulmer also has been critical of Tennessee's wideout corps, noting: ''I think the receivers have been really slow to develop this season. But they're coming on right now the best they have this season. I'm anxious to see them get to the point where every player that's out there can be a threat.''

One guy who seems to be a threat is Montrell Jones. He turned in a four-catch, 69-yard performance against South Carolina. Maybe he is on the verge of breaking out.

''I hope so,'' Fulmer said. ''Montrell has made some progress.''

Freshman Jonathan Wade is making progress, too. He caught a 32-yard pass against Alabama in Game 7 and caught two balls for 13 yards in Game 8, despite missing much of the second half with injuries. The Vols will need help from the rest of the wideout corps if they're to stretch Miami's defense this weekend.

''Last week we threw a ball to every receiver we took on the trip,'' Sanders noted. ''They're making progress. They haven't arrived yet but they're all making progress. We need those guys to continue to develop.''

If Tennessee can get some production from its wideouts, that will take some heat off tight end Jason Witten, who led UT with six catches for 72 yards last weekend. Miami is sure to try and limit Witten's touches this weekend.

''I'm sure they'll be very aware of Jason,'' Fulmer said. ''It gets difficult for him when everybody's ganging up on him. Our other receivers actually stepped up pretty good in the last ballgame. Montrell made some plays. Jonathan (Wade) made a really nice play. C.J. Fayton had a touchdown and did some nice things. When they try to double-team one person, that leaves the other people one-on-one with opportunities.''

If those ''other people'' can exploit these opportunities, Tennessee could give the top-ranked Hurricanes some trouble. If not, the stands could be clearing out by the end of the third quarter.


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