Talented Trio Brings Bonus Benefits

Moments after the Vols sealed the deal with the Class of 2003, speculation began in earnest on what impact three All-American receivers might have on Tennessee's depth chart this fall.

Undoubtedly, UT was a different team last year without Kelley Washington and Donte Stallworth in the lineup to back off the safeties and make key receptions. Essentially, Tennessee was forced into feature receiver by sub committee — a critical job manned by an inexperienced wideout corps that clearly wasn't ready for prime time. Included in this unit were true freshmen Jonathan Wade, a high school cornerback and world class sprinter, and Chris Hannon, a high school quarterback with loads of potential, but no PT as a receiver. There were redshirt freshmen C.J. Fayton, another high school quarterback who converted to wideout last spring, and Jomo Fagan, a high school DB who only had 32 catches in his scholastic career. Then there's a pair of sophomores in Montrell Jones and Tony Brown. Jones was a true sophomore and high school all-American, who has yet to live up to his billing in two seasons on The Hill, while Brown was a redshirt who developed into a consistent, if unspectacular, performer in 2002. Another true freshman, James Banks, saw some playing time at receiver last year when he wasn't handling quarterback duties, but he had no experience to draw from and didn't make a single reception. Of course, this list wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of Justin Reed, a failed scholarship punter who checks in at 6-6, which may also be his 40 time. Now comes the terrific trio of Jayson Swain, Bret Smith and Robert Meachem, who are ranked as three of the top eight wideout prospects in the country by respected recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. Each is first and foremost a receiver with plenty of experience and proven expertise. It's probably not realistic to expect this talented threesome to break into the starting lineup as true freshmen from Day One, but it only seems like a matter of time before they push into the wide receiver rotation. That alone is enough to have Big Orange fans excited about the future, but there could be benefits beyond their imminent contributions on the field. To begin with: It seems unlikely Casey Clausen will have to conjole UT's young receivers to attend voluntary workouts or show up next fall prepared. Anything less than maximum effort will likely result in no playing time or a change of position. Internal competition drives a team to achieve its best and the lack of competition last year arrested the development of the wide receivers. There simply isn't playing time for 11 receivers in Tennessee's rotation, which means some players might be moved to other positions while others could be redshirted. It's probably unfair to speculate on who will be moved until spring practice is completed and a comprehensive evaluation can be made, but it appears clear Banks might be left at quarterback since he has more playing experience than anyone besides Clausen. If Tennessee leaves Banks at quarterback, it has to make some adjustments to the offense to showcase his strengths as a signal caller. That translates to more sprint outs, more run-pass choices, some option action, QB draws, throwbacks and screens. It remains to be seen if Banks has the passing skills to fully take advantage of the Vols revamped receiving stable, but he could shore up the position on an interim basis. If Banks can't excel in UT's offensive system, he won't have a chance to succeed in the pro ranks. However there's little question that Banks has the athletic talent to reach the next level and it might be advantageous to redshirt him after his sophomore season to determine his best position and give him a chance to adapt to it before taking the field. That could well become a blessing for both Tennessee and for Banks. The final benefit Swain, Smith and Meachem bring to Tennessee is in the search for a future quarterback. That will become the Vols No. 1 recruiting priority next year and, with the weapons UT has at its disposal, it should be able to attract one of the nation's best prospects to come in and compete with Bo Hardegree or Banks for the starting job in 2004. Until then, the Vols top priority has to be providing Clausen with the best protection talent and strategy can afford.

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