The Receivers: A Little Depth with Little Experience, but Lots of Promise
Less than a week ago, Vols fans were walking around almost embarrassed regarding the bounty of riches Tennessee possessed at the receiver positions. That changed on Thursday morning when it was announced that junior receiver Da’Rick Rogers was suspended indefinitely due to a violation(s) of team rules. Dooley recently commented that it was “recent events” that led to the decision for suspension. It appears likely that Rogers will never play in an orange jersey again, but nothing has been announced as final at this moment. [UPDATE: It appears that Rogers will transfer to Tennessee Tech.]
Losing a top player is always a tough thing to deal with (note the injuries to Justin Hunter and then Tyler Bray in 2011). But when that player is the ONLY player at a skilled position that has ANY semblance of SIGNIFICANT experience – plus having led the SEC last season with 67 receptions and 1,040 receiving yards – it causes observers to rethink their predicted W-L balance for the upcoming season.
But there is the chemistry factor.
Not long after signing with Tennessee, Rogers was arrested after a summertime 2010 fight in a bar on Cumberland. Last season, there were a lot of incidents that were not widely reported in great detail, including a blow-up at coaches/players both in the weight room and on the sideline, including his petulant behavior during the Kentucky game. Then, this season presented a pre-spring practice suspension (a two-week ban), and a disciplinary issue during practice that led to rumors Rogers would transfer to another school. There was likely a lot more.
It all led to the Vols brass doing what some people felt should have happened last season. The problem then was that Dooley really had nothing in the cupboard to rely upon. But with an impressive number of newly recruited receivers from both the high school and JUCO ranks – that alone makes you think the coaches could see this suspension coming at some point – it appears that taking action now was less of a risk than it was last fall.
In fact some pundits are pontificating that the loss of Rogers may actually be a plus instead of a minus, all because of the chemistry factor.
Yes, a continual disruption to the internal focus of a team and staff is a cancer that must be dealt with. But whether or not it will translate to an even better team performance remains for speculation on a future day after we see how the rest of the wide receivers can perform without the reigning conference leader in receptions.
Personally, I think it was a move that had to be made. You can’t have a player – one who younger players will look up to – undermine the coaches and his team. And, that is basically what this is all about. Rogers is all about Rogers and not much else. He can be a very good interview and come across as reasonably intelligent and mature, but that can also be the art of a con man. The bottom line is that Dooley knows he has to put a winner on the field this season, and he isn’t going to risk that with a player who has a history of undermining his coaches in front of impressionable players.
Da’Rick Rogers ended up undermining himself.
The only disappointing thing is that a senior from last year’s squad didn’t take Da’Rick out behind the woodshed and literally beat his attitude out of him. Perhaps that was actually tried, which in itself would illuminate the seriousness of the problem. And by all accounts it was a very serious problem.
Then there are the tight ends, the current position under the injury curse.
The combination of the Rogers suspension with the tight-end injury bug alters the one-time biggest strength of the 2012 Volunteers to one of the biggest question marks, at least for the first month of the upcoming season.
This is what new position coaches Darin Hinshaw (WRs), who replaces the departed Charlie Baggett, and Charlie Coiner (TEs along with special teams) face going into the opener in the Georgia Dome on Friday night.
So lets take a look at the players, both wide receivers and tight ends, and see where the chips look to fall on opening night.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS
Overall, this squad of WRs can be described as having little experience, at least the experience that is likely to be required to carry this offense. But if the running game can show some ability to take the pressure off the passing game, there will be more room for the receivers to develop that experience and confidence.
The Main Names
With Rogers in exile, Junior Justin Hunter (#11) is now The Man. The former state high school high jump and long jump champion (Virginia), Hunter had a stellar freshman year in orange when he broke the school record for receiving TDs (7) which ranked tied for first among all NCAA FBS freshman receivers. He led the team with a 26 yards per catch average. Last season was to be a dream. Combined with Rogers and Tyler Bray, Hunter was to be part of the most dynamic passing game in the SEC. But when he suffered a season-ending torn ACL (left knee) early in the Florida game, the team seemed to cave in upon itself. My worry for this season was best expressed recently by Dooley who said that everyone talks as if Hunter is going to come back like a Lynn Swann. My expectations are somewhat tempered by Hunter’s ability to be able to play without fear of a re-injury. That could hamper his return to the disappointing point that we could have already seen the best of Justin Hunter. This will all play out with the pressure of Hunter being the go-to receiver, at least early in the season, which will be a different atmosphere than when Rogers was the focus, opening up Hunter to be able to express himself with his height and speed. Justin will have to be able to handle the burden that comes with his new stature.
Junior (JUCO) Cordarrelle Patterson (#84) recently was practicing in a red non-contact jersey due to a shoulder injury. Nonetheless, he looks to start on Friday against NC State. His record speaks to why there is so much excitement about Patterson coming to Knoxville. He was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 1 JUCO wide receiver and the No. 4 overall JUCO prospect in the country as a two-time NJCAA All-American at Hutchinson Community College (Kansas). He also averaged 48 yards on 10 kickoff returns, three of them for touchdowns. And for local interest, Patterson was a high-school teammate of Vols backup QB Justin Worley at Northwestern H.S. in South Carolina. Perhaps the biggest hurdle regarding Patterson has already been successfully jumped – his grades. The fear was that he might not pass all his classes to allow him to participate in fall drills and the upcoming season. With that behind him, and the dismissal of Da’Rick Rogers, the combination of Patterson and Hunter just might make us forget the promise of a Rogers-Hunter duo.
Senior Zach Rogers (#83) had a less-than-stellar junior season, giving the word ‘dropsy’ a new meaning. But a lot will be expected of him this season to fill in around the edges of the Hunter-Patterson duo.
[UPDATE: Sophomore Vincent Dallas (#6) returned to being a receiver a week before the season opener after a three-month run as a defensive back. With the Vols signing four freshmen WRs and a JUCO transfer, Dallas became expendable as a receiver even after the offseason transfers of DeAnthony Arnett and Matt Milton. But with the injuries to Alton “Pig” Howard and Jason Croom (see below), and the eparture of Da’Rick Rogers meant the Vols needed Dallas more at receiver.]
The New Arrivals
Patterson wasn’t the only prize recruit at the wide receiver position. Freshman Alton “Pig” Howard (#2) has the potential to be a game-breaking receiver. Injured in July, Howard had foot surgery and hasn’t practiced since. Is return date will not likely be until the Florida game at the soonest. Freshman Cody Blanc (#36) probably thought he was going to be a safety, but as spring practice season unfolded, Blanc had to go to fill the biggest needs, and he showed his athletic abilities were a fit for catching the ball as much as they were for preventing catches. Freshman Jason Croom (#18) is a large and physical presence, and may find his way onto the line of scrimmage to serve specific situations. Croom just returned to practice sessions after nursing a hamstring injury. Freshman Drae Bowles (#7) was a receiver and a linebacker in high school. Freshman Sam Cranford (#9) is a walk-on.
Rounding Out the Roster
Juniors (JUCO) Tyler Drummer (#3), Jacob Carter (#87), and Dylan West (#80) were redshirted in 2010 and served as squad members last season. Look for the same roles this season.
The Ballad of David Rickey
Junior receiver Da’Rick Rogers (#21) remains on the purgatory portion of the roster for now, pending the “indefinite” part of his recently announced suspension. In the meantime, some Bob Dylan lyrics seem to sum up the self-responsibility aspect of the David Rickey saga.
Once I had mountains / In the palm of my hands / With rivers that ran through every day / I must have been mad / I never knew what I had / Until I threw it all away
The sad part from the fans’ perspective is that the Vol Nation will likely never see the actualization of Rogers’ immense talent, at least not in an orange jersey, and will not be able to watch a full season of one of the most anticipated receiver combinations (Rogers/Hunter) ever assembled.
THE TIGHT ENDS
The Vols are essentially down to two viable choices for tight end – Mychal Rivera and a fullback – due to injuries and Cameron Clear’s dismissal in May due to his arrest for felony theft of a laptop belonging to a Tennessee baseball player. Rivera is actually injured as well but can play. Clear was a disappointing loss as he was a highly-prized recruit and was listed as the Vols’ second-team tight end behind Rivera. And with Brendon Downs (dislocated kneecap) and Joseph Ayres (sprained ankle) sidelined, the situation became so dire just a couple weeks ago that linebacker Greg King was summoned to work with the tight ends and fullbacks during recent practices.
Senior Mychal “Rattlesnake” Rivera (#81) was a more-than-decent tight end last season based on his ability to catch passes, but needs to do the other things required of a tight end in order to become a complete player. How his knee will recover is an important question. Recent practices during August camp featured Rivera in a red non-contact jersey.
Senior Ben Bartholomew (#39) was last season’s starting fullback in over half the games. What he showed in the backfield was that he had decent hands, catching six passes. Thus, with the tight-end crisis, the senior was transitioned to backup Rivera.
Sophomore Brendan Downs (#85) is sidelined with a dislocated kneecap, a disappointing development after having a rousing spring practice season. Junior Joseph Ayres (#88) is sidelined with ankle issues. So it looks like Freshman Justin Meredith (#82) may see some playing time and see if he was worth the effort of not giving up on his recruitment when he was verbally committed to North Carolina for a period of time. Whether or not junior linebacker Greg King (#48) will see any significant time at tight end remains to be seen.
Rounding out the TE roster are junior Dakota Summers (#43), sophomores Bryant Plumlee (#89) and Alex Ellis (#40), and freshman Charles Folger (#42).
THE LAST WORD
Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson must step up, and quickly. If they don’t, more pressure will be put on an unproven running attack. The health of the tight end corps is a concern. It all adds up to a giant question mark. Talent and potential must be actualized, especially against the big boys. Having depth and having bodies are two different things.