Big receiver ... big problem

Often as not, big receivers make the big plays that win big games.

Take Georgia's A.J. Green, for instance. Though only a freshman, the 6-4, 190-pounder leads all SEC receivers with 81.9 receiving yards per game. He also ranks third in receptions per game at 5.14.

Green caught seven balls for a mere 53 yards against Tennessee two weeks ago, but drew so much attention that teammate Mohamed Massaquoi was able to scorch the Vols for 103 yards on five catches.

Tennessee gets a look at another rambunctious rookie receiver this weekend, when Alabama's Julio Jones comes to town. Jones, a 6-4, 210-pound freshman, was even more heralded than Green entering college and might be even more productive if he played in a more balanced offense. Even with Bama playing smash-mouth football, Jones leads the second-ranked Tide in receptions (22), yards (341), yards per catch (15.5) and receiving touchdowns (4).

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer concedes that big receivers – even if they're freshmen – can have big impact on football games.

"If you take big, physical receiver – Green at Georgia or Jones at Alabama – those guys can make a tremendous difference this day and age because of their ability to make a big play ... to go up and snatch it away from a defensive back ... to athletically turn and catch an underthrow," the Vol coach said. "It's because of the style of defenses people are playing nowadays. It's not a lot of soft zone anymore. If it's zone it's zone pressure. There's a lot of man-to-man."

With more teams playing tight man-to-man coverage nowadays, receivers with the size and strength to beat press coverage and get downfield in a hurry are a valuable commodity.

As Fulmer noted: "That's why they pay those guys so much in the NFL ... to throw it up close and let him go make a play."

That may help explain why Tennessee's passing game is underachieving this fall. The 2008 Vols don't have a Kelley Washington (6-4, 225) or a Robert Meachem (6-3, 220) who can outmuscle 5-9, 180-pound cornerbacks. Their top wideouts are Gerald Jones (6-0, 185), Lucas Taylor (6-0, 185), Denarius Moore (6-1, 185), Josh Briscoe (6-3, 183) and Austin Rogers (6-2, 185). The Vols have a guy who fits the big-receiver dimensions in freshman E.J. Abrams-Ward (6-5, 210) but he is being redshirted.

Why are A.J. Green and Julio Jones starting and starring as freshmen while Abrams-Ward is watching and waiting?

"It just depends on the maturity of the person," Fulmer said. "You've got some guys that have very unusual athletic ability that are also mentally prepared to make the transition and not intimidated by the speed of the game, not intimidated by the crowd or the environment or the competition. Those guys are rare to find. Over the years we've had some guys that have done that."

Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis agrees that freshmen with the talent and maturity of Julio Jones don't come along very often.

"Those guys happen," Chavis said. "Obviously, we've already played one freshman like that over at Georgia (Green).

"There are not that many of them that you're going to see every year but there are a few of them. Certainly, it takes a talented individual, an individual with a lot of intelligence.

"Then it's (a matter of) making that adjustment. It's a tough deal for kids leaving home to go somewhere and participate in college athletics. Some of them make that transition a lot easier than others."

Tennessee got a look at one of those quick-transition guys two weeks ago. It gets a look at another one Saturday night at 7:45.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories