KNOXVILLE—A young gunslinger at quarterback, a returning 1,000-yard rusher, an offensive line that's been baptized by fire and a receiver duo that certainly passes the eye test.
Never was Tennessee's future offensively as bright as it was during a four-game November winning streak, when the Volunteers showed enough promise to make Neyland Stadium's scoreboard operator get his rest in now while he can.
But, first, there's one small matter that needs to be addressed.
Departed senior receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones and senior tight end Luke Stocker left three gaping holes in UT's pass game, especially given how much the Vols let true freshman Tyler Bray toss the ball all over the field with multiple-receiver formations late last fall. That trio combined for 141 receptions, 1,994 yards and 15 touchdowns — roughly 60 percent of UT's passing attack.
“Filling those three seniors' roles is going to be difficult,” UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “They left a pretty good legacy here at Tennessee. Hopefully those kids behind them will be able to do it, but they're good and will be missed.”
The immediate onus at receiver falls on Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. More than just having to replace Jones and Moore's level of production, the rising sophomores will have to fill in the roles their former teammates left them.
Moore, who had 981 yards (21 per catch) and nine touchdowns, was the Vols' big-play guy, a position Hunter clearly fits.
“I don't think I'm ever going to change from that,” said the lanky 6-foot-4 Hunter, an elite leaper who last year averaged 26 yards per grab and caught a UT freshman record with seven touchdown catches. “I think I'm going to stay that.”
Taking on Jones' role figures to be much more difficult, though it might be the most important. The Vols were lost on third downs without him: UT converted six of 43 third downs in the three games Jones missed after breaking a bone in his hand in the opener. In the 10 games in which he played, Jones made 20 of the Vols’ 45 third-down catches that resulted in first downs.
Enter the muscular 6-3, 215-pound Rogers, a former Calhoun High School star who possesses the size and the frame to become a reliable third-down option for Bray. Rogers, Chaney said, has had a “wonderful” spring.
“I've taken a lot of [those] routes,” Rogers said. “The third-down, the inside slot routes, a lot of those physical routes, I've taken a lot of those on.”
Added Hunter: “He's a big stocky receiver [that's] fast and can take hits. Da'Rick is out there diving for balls and everything. He thinks every ball is going to be his. That's the mindset he needs to have.”
At 6-4, Mychal Rivera is two inches shorter than Stocker, who caught a pass in every game a season ago.
“I don't feel like Mike's got a lot of heat on him right now,” Chaney said. “We just want Mike to be as good as Mike can be. Right now he's doing fine in the run game, and [he] needs to pick up some things in the passing game a little bit better, but we're pleased with Mike, too.”
Hunter and Rogers will need help rounding out the receiving corps, whether it's Zach Rogers, the elder of the group as a rising junior, the 6-5 Matt Milton, who's still developing his skills, or early enrollee Vincent Dallas.
“They take the pressure off us,” said Hunter, “and that's the biggest thing.”
What could also certainly help the progress of the new primary targets is Bray's continued development as he improves his own grasp of the offense, which he's done through two weeks of spring.
“You're calling plays now,” Chaney said, “and he understands what they are. He's seeing the bigger picture better he's throwing the ball accurately like he always does and we're real pleased with his development. Ultimately it's his job to move the ball down the field and score points. We get judged by that — how many do we score and how many we don't score.”
But how the Vols replace that missing chunk of their offense will determine if they take that next step in a process of becoming an explosive offense that began last fall.
“I want to say we're a little bit more versatile than we were last year,” Da’Rick Rogers said. “You can never replace [those guys], but I do feel like we have a little bit more athleticism, a little more speed as a whole, so really the way we have it this year is everybody plays a little bit of everything. Everybody’s replacing G-Jones, everybody's replacing D-Mo, because you can't replace them with just one person.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...