Hope springs eternal in the days preceding the opening of preseason camp.
So when Tennessee receivers coach Frank Wilson was asked about losing three of his receivers to injury, he found a silver lining.
As UT’s offensive players try to get a feel for each other during summer workouts in head coach Lane Kiffin’s new offense, less players means more repetitions for those who aren’t gimpy.
“It sounds like an ole cliché but experience is a good teacher,” Wilson said on The News Sentinel’s radio show, The Sports Page. “The more times they can see it, the more times they can do it, the variety of looks they get from the defense will only enhance their awareness.”
Sure, Wilson would love to have a deep receiving corps. Kiffin would love to have four scholarship quarterbacks instead of two. But that’s not reality as they try to rebuild a program that finished 5-7 last season.
“It’s the hand we’ve been dealt and we’re going to compete and go after it and get it,” Wilson said. “We feel confident we’ll be able to get the job done with those guys.”
Senior Austin Rogers is out for the season with a torn knee ligament. Junior Denarius Moore will be shelved for two months with a broken bone in his foot. And junior Gerald Jones will be limited in preseason practice with a sore wrist — if he’s able to practice at all.
So who needs to step up?
“Every one of them,” Wilson said. “We’re so bleak at the position. Right now we’ve got to keep on hammering away and ask each and every one of them to come in and play a role this season.”
Converted tight end Brandon Warren and senior Quintin Hancock top the list of fill-in candidates. Hancock was a standout in spring practice. Warren began to better understand his role toward the end of spring.
Wilson said he is pleased with Warren’s progress and has high expectations for him this season.
“We do consider him a receiver,” Wilson said of the junior who was a freshman All-American at Florida State as a tight end in 2006. “We don’t consider him a ’tweener.”
Then the Vols’ depth chart gets really young. Freshmen receivers Nu’Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers have an open window of opportunity.
That trio has already hit the ground running — literally and figuratively. All of UT’s receivers were sent playbooks to study soon after they signed their national letter of intent in February.
As is customary, most of UT’s freshmen have been on campus working with their new teammates this summer.
As per NCAA rules, Wilson can’t coach his freshmen yet but he can quiz them on their knowledge of UT’s new offense.
“At least mentally in talking to those guys, they’re up to par,” Wilson said. “We’ve just got to make sure we can make that transition once camp starts.”
Part of that transition for the newcomers will be learning to understand disguised defenses and attacking defensive backs in order to get separation downfield. The athleticism that made UT’s freshman receivers so coveted won’t be as prominent on the collegiate level.
“You’re not just that much faster than everyone else,” Wilson said.
While college receivers often struggle to produce in their first year, Wilson calls UT’s offense “receiver friendly” and said the Vols’ coaching staff will adjust to suit each player’s strengths.
“It’s not very difficult for our receivers to adjust to,” Wilson said of UT’s offense. “… We will do things to exploit their talents and put them at an advantage.”
Wilson said the Vols might consider other players to lend a hand at receiver, although no decision had been made as of last week.
Safety Eric Berry’s athleticism would make him an interesting candidate. Berry played offense for UT sparingly as a quarterback and caught one pass for three yards last season at receiver under former UT coach Phillip Fulmer.
Wilson didn’t speak directly about Berry but has plenty of respect for the player for whom UT will launch a Heisman Trophy campaign. Wilson believes defensive players should get more consideration for college football’s most coveted award.
The last time a defender won the award was in 1997 when Michigan’s Charles Woodson bested UT quarterback Peyton Manning.
“There has been great defensive players since then on the collegiate level that have not even been considered for the Heisman,” Wilson said. “It’s just tough because they have the ball in their hands less and it’s less glamorous.
“Unfortunately those guys don’t get the same attention as the offensive guys.”
Giving Berry a shot on offense could help his chances.