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VOL. 132 | NO. 105 | Friday, May 26, 2017

Wide Receiver U? That’s So 20 Years Ago

By David Climer

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At the 2015 SEC Media Days, Tennessee coach Butch Jones referred to his school as “the original Wide Receiver U.”

Former Tennessee Vols receiver Peerless Price is best remembered for amassing 199 yards in the 1998 national championship game. (AP Photo/Athlon Sports)

The reference goes back to the days when the Vols were loaded with fast, talented pass receivers on the perimeter. In a heady stretch from 1982-91, UT had six wide receivers selected in the first round of the NFL draft – Anthony Hancock, Willie Gault, Clyde Duncan, Tim McGee, Anthony Miller and Alvin Harper.

In 1989, UT publicists pressed the point home with a picture of Vols coach John Majors and six wideouts on the cover of the media guide.

But Wide Receiver U. has given way to Wide Receiver Who?

UT enters the season minus three of the top four pass catchers from 2016, which raises lots of questions. Kevin Beard is a new arrival at wide receivers coach after replacing Zach Azzanni, who left to join the staff of the Chicago Bears.

Yes, junior Jauan Jennings is back after averaging 14.5 yards on 40 catches last season. But who else is ready to step up? How did it come to this? Given its history of productive wide receivers, it’s hard to explain the lack of proven wideouts.

It’s nothing new. 

In the last 20 years, UT has had only three wide receivers make the Associated Press All-SEC first team – Marcus Nash in 1997, Robert Meachem in 2006 and Da’Rick Rogers in in 2011. Cordarrelle Patterson was All-SEC in ’12 but he made it as a returner.

Jones has signed his share of quality prospects at the position but most have failed to play up to expectations. Perhaps the best example is Marquez North, who had a big freshman season in 2013 but failed to progress from there. North entered the NFL Draft after his junior year but went undrafted. He spent last season on injured reserve with the Los Angeles Rams.

Preston Williams looked the part when he arrived at UT in 2015 but transferred midway through his sophomore season. He’s now at Colorado State. 

Josh Malone, who was part of Jones’ landmark recruiting class of 2014, struggled as a freshman and sophomore but led the Vols with 50 catches last season. He opted for the NFL and was a fourth-round pick by Cincinnati.

The failure of prime-time prospects to produce big-time at UT brings up one of the criticisms of Jones and his staff: player development. It also calls into question the Vols’ overall passing scheme, which features a lot of short throws and lacks creativity on intermediate and deep routes.

Whatever the case, it is essential that things improve at the wide receiver position in the upcoming season. The Vols will be breaking in a new quarterback, with either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano taking over for the departed Joshua Dobbs. It remains to be seen who will step up on the perimeter.

These Vols have a long way to go to play up to the legacy of Wide Receiver U. 

In terms of the passing game, UT kicked into high gear in 1982 with the arrival of Al Saunders as offensive coordinator. After running the ball 69 percent of the time in ’81 under Bill Pace, the Vols went to a 3-to-2 run/pass ratio with Saunders calling the plays.

Saunders stayed only one season but during that time he modernized the passing scheme. Walt Harris succeeded him in ’83 and added his own touches, including the three-wideout formation.

In the 35 seasons that followed Saunders’ arrival, here is my ranking of the top 10 wide receivers for the Vols:

CARL PICKENS (1989-91) 

He had it all – size, speed, leaping ability, hands. How good of an athlete was Pickens? He intercepted five passes in five games and was named defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl after being switched to safety as a redshirt freshman in 1989.

TIM MCGEE (1983-85) 

He had great moves and terrific hands. McGee’s signature performance was a 10-catch, 157-yard game against Florida in 1984.

ALVIN HARPER (1987-90) 

Tall and talented, Harper averaged 15.2 yards per catch with 16 touchdowns on Vols teams that were loaded at wide receiver.

JOEY KENT (1993-96) 

He is the program’s career leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Kent’s 80-yard catch and run of a Peyton Manning pass on the opening play against Alabama in 1995 is one of the most memorable in recent Vols history.

ROBERT MEACHEM (2004-06) 

He averaged 17.1 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a Vol before skipping his senior season and becoming a first-round draft pick by New Orleans.

MARCUS NASH (1994-97) 

Nash’s career coincided with Peyton Manning’s, which gave him ample opportunity to catch 177 passes. His 76 receptions in 1996 is a UT record.

PEERLESS PRICE (1995-98) 

Price capped a great career by burning Florida State for 199 yards and the deciding touchdown in the BCS Championship Game.

T.D. WOODS (1986-89) 

He led the Vols in receptions three straight years and finished with 124 catches in his career.

JUSTIN HUNTER (2010-12) 

Hunter would be higher on the list if he hadn’t suffered a torn ACL in the Florida game in his junior season.

ANTHONY MILLER (1986-87)

Of the junior college receivers UT has brought in over the years, Miller is the best of the bunch. He averaged 18.5 yards and scored five touchdowns in his first season but his final year was limited due to a knee injury.

That list excludes some great receivers that came before Saunders’ hiring, most notably: Anthony Hancock (1978-81) and Larry Seivers (1974-76), as well as Stanley Morgan (1973-76), who split his time between wingback and running back.

Also absent is Willie Gault, whose senior season was ’82. 

Although Gault made All-America as a senior, his biggest impact prior to that was on kick returns and as a decoy.

As for wide receivers after ’82 that didn’t quite make the top 10, don’t forget the impact of Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington, who formed a tremendous tandem in 2001, as well as Cedric Wilson (1997-2000), Cory Fleming (1990-93), Denarius Moore (2007-10) and Gerald Jones (2007-10), among others.

SO WHO’S NEXT? 

Among current Vols, Jennings has established himself as a star-caliber wideout. He is tough, competitive, fearless and a leader. His Hail Mary reception that won the Georgia game last season speaks for itself.

Senior Josh Smith has shown a knack of getting open and making catches. Sophomore Marquez Callaway was one of the stars of spring practice. Tyler Byrd, Latrell Williams and Brandon Johnson are in the mix.

This could be a situation where a freshman could come in and make immediate impact. Jordan Murphy, a four-star recruit from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, will get a shot, as will Joshua Palmer and Jacquez Jones.

Beard, who previously played and coached at the University of Miami, is a big believer in competition. Speaking to reporters during spring practice, Beard made it clear that playing time will be determined by what happens on the practice field.

“They’re all coming along quite well,” he says. “With the guys we’re bringing in this June, it’s going to be a healthy competition. “And I really do believe, coming from Miami, competition is everything. It fuels the competitors. You’re going to do one of two things: Fold or you’re going to focus.”

To say Beard is a hands-on coach is an understatement. He arrives at the practice field in cleats and often runs pass routes to show the players proper technique.

“Being able to get out there and do it for them, demonstrate it, it gave me a little more credibility,” Beard explains.

But Beard runs his pass routes in practice during the week. The challenge is for his players to step up on Saturdays.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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