"I had confidence in 'em last year," rising junior receiver Gerald Jones said recently. "I just don't think they reached their full potential ... just like myself and a lot of the receivers. We have confidence. It's just a matter of proving it. We know they're capable of doing it. Now is the time to do it."
Rising senior tight end Jeff Cottam echoed those sentiments.
"We have complete confidence in the quarterbacks," he said. "If I'm open, I think he's going to make the throw every time, so I'm just looking for the ball."
After running David Cutcliffe's passing scheme in 2007 and Dave Clawson's scheme in 2008, Tennessee's quarterbacks are adapting to another new scheme in 2009. The early returns are favorable.
"It's all coming together real nicely," Cottam said. "With any new offense, it's going to take some time for the quarterbacks and receivers to get on the same page. We're just kinda figuring out the assignments and everything, but it's coming together. We'll only get better."
Better play at quarterback doesn't guarantee a potent passing attack, of course. No matter how well the ball is thrown, there has to be someone competent on the other end to catch it. So, improved play at wide receiver is just as important as improved play at quarterback.
So, what has new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney seen from Vol wideouts to suggest they are on the right track?
"Nothing. They're dropping every ball and they haven't blocked anybody," Chaney said, pausing briefly before flashing a snide grin to let his audience know he was being facetious.
One positive development at wide receiver is the play of Quintin Hancock. After catching 14 balls as a sophomore in 2007, he disappeared in '08, failing to register a single catch. He re-appeared last weekend, however, catching touchdown passes on the last two plays of Saturday's scrimmage. The last catch, made while on his knees, was especially impressive.
"Quintin's catch on that last ball on the goal line was fantastic," Chaney said. "He slipped and still made the play.... Quintin made a couple of good plays for us. It was good to see Quintin come out and make some plays."
Still, Tennessee's top receivers project to be Jones, Austin Rogers and Denarius Moore. Jones recorded 30 receptions for 323 yards and four touchdowns last fall – all team highs. Rogers caught 56 balls in 2007 but slipped to 14 last year. Moore caught just 11 passes last fall but averaged a whopping 24.6 yards per reception. He's a legitimate home-run threat.
"We've got to get Denarius involved a little bit more, see how that goes," Chaney said. "Gerald ... I think we feel pretty comfortable with where he's at. The rest of 'em, we just continue to watch them develop."
One knock on Tennessee's receivers a year ago was their perceived lack of toughness, mental and physical. That seems to be a practice emphasis this spring. The wideouts are blocking well downfield and they are making difficult catches in sloppy weather conditions. Chaney seems pretty encouraged.
"I think what you've got to do is train the players that the things they can't control they shouldn't even contemplate," he said. "The weather, the elements, how wet the surface is ... they have no control over that, so you don't worry about that.
"You just go play. You're training your behavior."