Receivers such as Alshon Jeffery, A.J. Green and Julio Jones have made defending the pass a tall task for SEC secondaries in recent years. Tennessee might have a long run of success with sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers.
The 6-foot-4 Hunter set a UT record for freshmen with seven touchdown catches in 2010. He parlayed 16 receptions into 415 yards (25.9 yards per catch).
Hunter has long arms, and his 411â„2-inch vertical leap matches safety Janzen Jackson’s for what might be a team best. Rogers, who had 11 catches and 582 all-purpose yards as a freshman last season, is 6-foot-3 and athletic.
“They’re always getting stronger and faster and, I mean, just elevating their games to where I can just throw it up and they’re gonna go up and outmuscle anybody,” sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray said Sunday at the Vols’ annual media day.
Bray, who passed for 1,849 yards and 18 TDs in nine games (five starts) last year, is 6-foot-6, and yet another sophomore receiver, Matt Milton, is 6-foot-5. The Vols could play some basketball on grass this year.
“We had an intramural basketball team last year,” Rogers said. “We should’ve won the whole tournament. ... We had a good team with me, Justin, Matt Milton, Tyler Bray. (Tailback) Rajion Neal was on the team.”
Bray seems like the natural center in that unit, but Rogers didn’t recall anyone playing the post.
“We just ran around,” he said. “That’s probably why we lost.”
The time together probably enhanced intangibles. Bray said he’s tight with the receivers.
“Me and Matt Milton came in together (in Januray 2010), so we’ve been friends since then,” Bray said. “Da’Rick and Justin came in a little later (in the summer). We’re all good friends. We hang out all the time. We’re all a bunch of characters, but when we get on the field we try to simmer it down a little bit and not try to be so foolish.”
Hanging with fast friends has rubbed off on Bray — slightly. He’s got his 40 time below five seconds (4.9), not that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is fretting too much about his long, tall gunslinger’s lack of mobility.
“He’s got to run five yards for a first down in man coverage with nobody standing there,” Chaney said. “Hell, I’d hope he could just stumble his big (butt) for five yards. ... He’s tall.”
Bray smiles when discussing speed.
“I mean I take two strides and we’ve pretty much got a first down,” he said.
Jackson sees big years ahead for Bray, Hunter and Rogers. Without hesitation, he compares Rogers and Hunter with Jones, Jeffery and Green.
“They have all those (receivers’) attributes in their games,” Jackson said. “In practice it’s really a grind trying to cover them. ... It’s really trouble trying to guard them. They’ve got tremendous upside. They’re fast and big, and that’s what you want.”
Rogers and company should be mirror images of Jones and Green. Rogers said watching a lot of film Jones and Green was must-see TV in the eyes of UT receivers coach Charlie Baggett in the offseason. A lot of the Jones highlights came against Tennessee. He had 12 catches for 221 yards, an Alabama record, in the Crimson Tide’s 41-10 victory at Neyland Stadium last year.
“He showed us Julio Jones film, which is okay, because Julio Jones is one of my top receivers that I do enjoy watch play,” Rogers said. “But he showed us Julio Jones against us, so it really was a sore subject to watch.”
Some Vols receiver could have a game like Jones’ this year, especially with Montana, Middle Tennessee State and Buffalo on the schedule. And Bray, who, as Memphis can tell you, was capable of feasting on cupcakes in 2010, should provide a tougher test for better defenses, too.
This time last year Jackson was in Bray’s head. Now, it’s tough breaking up passes.
“I would say he’s light years ahead,” Jackson said. “I haven’t been able to get a jump on any of his balls, and that just shows — last year I was all over his passes. When he’s throwing the ball now, it’s outside on the receiver’s shoulder. And Justin and Da’Rick — they know that.
“And he’s keeping them out of trouble. When they throw the in routes, they throw it low and inside.”
Bray still is wary of Jackson in scrimmages. UT players marvel at how Jackson picked up where left off after not going through spring camp while tending to personal matters back home in Louisiana.
“Oh yeah, he didn’t miss a beat,” Bray said. “He came back and just produced like he did last year. He’s a gifted kid.”
Jackson mentioned Milton for a potential breakout season, and said “shifty” freshmen D’Anthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas could contribute immediately. Tennessee also has junior Zach Rogers, who led the Vols in receiving in two games last season.
“I think we can be one of the best receiving corps in the SEC, if not the nation,” Da’Rick Rogers said. “We’ve got a lot of size, a lot of speed. We really just feel like we can make a lot of plays on a lot of smaller DBs.”