Tennessee receivers have spent a month doing battle with SEC-caliber cornerbacks.
Now the Vols are getting ready for a bigger challenge — at least physically.
At 6-foot-3, 202 pounds, Montana's Trumaine Johnson is at least two inches taller and 12 pounds heavier than any of the four cover guys listed on the depth chart for UT heading into the season opener at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: pay-per-view, 6 p.m.). And though he's cut his teeth at a lower level and the Vols have prior experience against fast, physical competition in the passing game already, a decorated All-American like Johnson is certainly capable of offering a decent early barometer for a still young group of receivers.
"Most definitely," sophomore Da'Rick Rogers said. "I've watched a lot of film on the guy — his nickname is Tru, and he's 6-3, 200 pounds. So, he's a nice-sized corner, and it's really just a challenge for me to get to go against another big corner.
"There's not really that many out there, a few in the SEC, but it'll be good work for me."
Johnson has provided a few long days for receivers at the Football Championship Subdivision, and he has 13 career interceptions to show for it heading into his senior season.
Twice an all-conference pick in the Big Sky, Johnson is receiving some early buzz as a potential pick in next year's NFL draft, so the possible matchups this weekend have value for both sides. The Grizzlies aren't likely to play many more receivers with the kind of natural athleticism Rogers and fellow sophomore Justin Hunter bring to the table —and UT also will be watching closely to see how much those two have developed since making an impact as freshmen.
"(Johnson) is a heck of a player, there's no question about it," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "He shows up on tape making plays all the time, and our wideouts are going to have to come to play. If they end up matched on him, he's going to compete and see how good he can be.
"Our guys are going to do it every week, we're going to play against good football players. I hope we rise to the occasion and compete to the level we expect them to."
Collectively the degree of difficulty will only go up after Saturday, with Cincinnati on deck for the Vols and a critical conference date at Florida looming after that.
But for starters, there will be at least one individual battle that will literally be a big challenge for UT.
"The goal really (against big corners) is just to show them that, yeah, we're close to the same size, but I'm a lot more physical," Rogers said. "My thing is to just to come out and hit them right in the gut and let them know, 'Hey, I'm going to be here all game and it's going to be a physical one.'
"It'll be good, you know, I think he can run well — but we'll see if he can run with me. It'll be good competition."
Bumps and Bruises: Other than the news Thursday that wide receiver Naz Oliver will miss the season follow season-ending wrist surgery, the Vols appear to be close to full strength for their debut. Hunter was again in a red, non-contact jersey as UT closed out practice Thursday morning, but Dooley previously indicated it was nothing serious.
Familiar Faces: The guy with his name on the building is squarely in the middle. On either side are two more icons from their days inside the structure.
The pictures on the outside of the scoreboard at Neyland Stadium may be new, but the old faces are certainly well known for the UT program, which has honored Gen. Robert Neyland, former coach Phillip Fulmer and former quarterback Condredge Holloway heading into the season opener Saturday.
Their images are easy to see on the south side of the stadium and are one more example of the tradition Dooley is trying to restore.
"The General deserves to occupy the center position," UT senior associate athletic director Chris Fuller said in a release. "Condredge is one of the best athletes we've ever had in football and baseball, and what makes this special is he's a guy who would never call attention to himself.
"The image of Phillip is both a moment our fans recognize and celebrate, and an individual who has an indelible place in our history and tradition."