Wideout haul boosts Vol class

Wednesday's signing of two Parade All-America receivers who were considered toss-ups -- Robert Meachem of Tulsa and Bret Smith of Warren, Ark. -- elevated Tennessee's 2003 recruiting class to top-10 status and brought a big smile to the face of head coach Phillip Fulmer.

Calling this ''a tremendous day for the Tennessee Volunteers,'' Fulmer labeled the 22 signees he had as of 5:30 p.m. EST ''a very talented group.'' He went on to note that the Vols were ''still waiting on a couple'' of prospects. One of these was All-America quarterback JaMarcus Russell (Mobile, Ala.), who eventually announced his college choice of LSU on TV earlier this evening.

Meeting the press at a Thompson-Boling Arena news conference, Fulmer seemed especially pleased with an incoming receiver corps which features Meachem, Smith, heralded Jayson Swain (Huntsville, Ala.) and Bill Grimes (Douglasville, Ga.).

''I can't remember a time when we signed three or four better receivers,'' Fulmer said, subsequently adding that, ''All of them bring great qualities to the table.''

Although he noted that last year's much-criticized wideout corps improved as the 2002 season wore on, Fulmer added: ''But there's more competition (now) than they have seen.''

With such a celebrated group of receivers joining the mix, it's a good bet the Vols will scrap plans to use rising sophomore James Banks at both quarterback and receiver.

Fulmer wouldn't say that Banks' days as a wideout are ended but added that, ''It's obvious that it gives him a chance to stay at quarterback and work.''

The also landed four intriguing defensive linemen -- Parade All-American Turk McBride (Camden, N.J.), heralded Tony McDaniel (Columbia, S.C.), rugged Jared Hostetter (Louisa, Ky.) and juco transfer Zarnell Fitch (Navarro, Texas). Fitch is expected to immediately join the mix at defensive tackle, where Tennessee must replace 2002 starters Aubrayo Franklin and Rashad Moore, along with key reserve Ed Kendrick.

''It was crucial we sign someone who can give us some physical play and maturity,'' Fulmer said.

UT also signed juco linebacker Jon Poe (Coffeyville, Kansas), who already is enrolled. Fulmer expects Fitch and Poe to make their marks next fall.

''When you sign junior college guys you expect them to play and make an impact immediately,'' he said.

The Vols landed three offensive line prospects -- Parade All-American Eric Young (Union, S.C.), highly touted Arron Sears (Russellville, Ala.) and massive Steven Jones (Brentwood). Fulmer termed Young and Sears ''very exciting prospects,'' but said Vol recruiters ''came up a little short at that position.'' Still, he conceded that he is ''pleased with the quality, if not the quantity.''

Tennessee signed two in-state players who qualify as sleepers -- 6-8, 240-pound tight end Brad Cottam (Memphis) and 6-5, 195-pound quarterback Bo Hardegree (Jackson). Fulmer figures that both have a chance to be excellent in time.

The head man described Cottam as ''a 6-8 guy who can run,'' and noted that Hardegree has ''great feet, a nice arm, is very intelligent and comes from a really good system.''

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