The most intriguing aspect of Tennessee’s season-opening matchup against North Carolina State was the Volunteers’ passing game and the Wolfpack’s defense.
But the potential air show has become the err show.
Tennessee’s 1,000-yard receiver, Da’Rick Rogers, transferred to Tennessee Tech this week. No, he wasn’t longing for the small-campus vibe he found during a week of training at Milligan College earlier this month. He wasn’t always a happy camper there. He told reporters at Tennessee Tech he was dismissed from Tennessee for failing multiple drug tests, and his absence should lessen Tennessee’s chances of torching the Wolfpack defense.
“I’m very concerned, because we’ve got very little experience and they’ve got an incredible amount of experience,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff teleconference Tuesday. “And what those guys do best is they make you pay for any mistakes, whether it’s a poor route, whether it’s an inaccurate football, a bobbled ball — whatever it is, they’re gonna make you pay.”
North Carolina State cornerback C.J. Wilson, a three-year starter, also won’t play in the UT game Friday in the Georgia Dome (7:30 p.m., ESPNU). Wilson, a proven commodity in a talented, veteran secondary, has an unspecified eligibility issue.
Former safety Dontae Johnson, a junior, will start at cornerback opposite All-American David Amerson, a move that doesn’t appear to unnerve Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien.
“Dontae’s been fine,” O’Brien said. “I mean, we made the move last spring. Dontae started the spring game at corner for us. So you know, this was something that really had nothing to do with C.J.; it was everything to do with Dontae Johnson, what his abilities are.”
So perhaps Wilson and Rogers’ absences aren’t a push, although Tennessee still has weapons at receiver in red-shirt sophomore Justin Hunter and junior-college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson. The 6-foot-4 Hunter had 17 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the third game last season at Florida.
But Dooley suggested circumstances temporarily trump the talent of Hunter and Patterson.
“I’m sure everybody probably has greater expectations on him (Patterson) than what I have,” Dooley said, “just because my experience has been it’s unfair when a guy plays his first college football game to expect anything beyond something that’s typical of a freshman. And so there’s gonna be a lot of growing pains to kind of ease him into this game. The speed of the game’s gonna be different. The tempo, the environment – everything’s different. …
“I think he (Hunter) is a hundred percent as it relates to everything he can do to prepare to play. But there’s gonna be a level of rust that’s gonna be on him, because he hasn’t played since game two of last year. … And to expect him to just come back and just light it up is probably unrealistic.”
O’Brien isn’t convinced it’s so far-fetched.
“(Hunter) is a 6-foot-4 kid,” O’Brien said. “He can run. He has great hands. And he can go up and get the football. So I think he was probably the go-to guy when he got hurt last year. …
“Wide receivers can come back from injuries and almost start off where they were with very little dropoff.”
Tennessee 6-foot-6 junior Tyler Bray is one of the most touted quarterbacks in the country, and he’s high on many NFL mock drafts. Most of his statistics have come at the expense of lesser opponents, but there’s no denying his physical tools.
“He’s certainly been blessed with some abilities,” Dooley said, “but there’s a lot of guys that have been blessed with a lot of abilities that aren’t able to finally turn it into production with consistency. And he’s certainly gone out there on some games and flashed some incredible play, and then he’s had some games that I know he’s been disappointed in.”
Notes: O’Brien said the Wolfpack recruited 360-pound UT defensive tackle Dan McCullers, a Raleigh product, as an offensive lineman. “So he kind of told us to take a hike, that he would rather play defense in college,” O’Brien said. … Dooley was a receiver at Virginia, and O’Brien was the offensive line coach there for George Welsh during part of his career. … O’Brien noted ACC coaches at the more Southern schools complaining about having to recruit against the SEC’s superiority, and he described Tennessee as “an SEC football powerhouse.” … Tennessee climbed from a 3 to 3 ½-point favorite since Sunday night, according to Danny Sheridan.