Brandon Warren is a former TSSAA Mr. Football. He’s a former freshman All-America honoree.
And, after making the position switch from tight end to wide receiver during spring practice, he heads into preseason camp as the only healthy Tennessee wideout with at least 10 catches last season.
“We look at that in a positive way,” Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin said last week at SEC Media Days. “That gives a chance for our young guys, guys that were buried on the depth chart, a chance to come in and contribute right away and play.
“By the time we get rolling, maybe to Game 3 or Game 4, we may be a stronger receiver unit because of that,” Kiffin added.
Junior Gerald Jones (hand) will be limited at least at the start of preseason practices next week. Fellow junior Denarius Moore might miss a couple of games while recovering from his broken foot. Fifth-year senior Austin Rogers is done for the season after tearing his ACL.
Even before those mishaps, senior Quintin Hancock apparently staked out some playing time. At 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, Hancock is reminiscent physically of bigger receivers like Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett — who Kiffin worked with during his stint at Southern Cal. The Florida native has 16 career receptions for 165 yards, but did not make a single catch last season.
He made plenty during spring practice, and was recognized as the most improved offensive player as a result.
Following his position change, Warren (6-2, 216) had some early growing pains on and off the field — and had his No. 1 jersey replaced by a blank as a motivational tactic by the coaches. It worked. Warren finished the spring strong with two touchdown catches during the Orange and White game.
Third-year sophomore Todd Campbell (6-0, 186) also will try to take advantage of Jones’ and Moore’s absence to work his way into the rotation.
Once they return, Jones (6-0, 199) and Moore are sure to get their fair share of reps. Jones’ 30 receptions led the team last year, and with the G-Gun package apparently dormant, he can focus fully on playing receiver. Moore (6-1, 190) is a big-play threat, averaging a robust 24.6 yards per catch last season.
The new kids aren’t bad either. For now, the fresh faces at wideout will be Nu’Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague, Zach Rogers — Austin’s younger brother — and James Green.
Richardson (5-10, 165) and Teague (5-10, 180) were good enough to get scholarship offers from Florida but Kiffin lured both to Rocky Top. Both dual-threat quarterbacks in high school, Richardson accounted for 20 total touchdowns while Teague surpassed 1,000 yards passing and rushing.
Rogers (6-2, 170) follows his older brother to Knoxville after winning a state football title at David Lipscomb High School as a junior and four gold medals at the state track meet in May.
Rivals.com ranked Green (6-2, 190) as the No. 17 receiver available in the 2009 class. He also has experience returning punts.
Kiffin has been prepping these youngsters — and all the incoming freshmen — since they sent in their national letters of intent by mailing them DVDs and playbooks.
Skill position players like Williams and Reggie Bush enjoyed success as freshmen at Southern Cal. The Trojans assistant turned UT head coach said managing young talent resolves around answering one simple question.
“What can he do great?” Kiffin said regarding Richardson. “He can do this, this and this. Don't try to make him do everything. He'll never get really good at anything if you make him do that.”
With 20 starts between them, seniors Luke Stocker and Jeff Cottam should be able to do almost everything at tight end for the Vols. Both sound blockers, Stocker (6-6, 240) has more accomplishments in the passing game with 17 career receptions. Cottam (6-8, 260) also can catch the ball, but went without a grab in 2008.
Kiffin’s staff moved sophomore Ben Bartholomew (6-2, 250) from fullback to tight end this spring.
How do the Vols’ receivers and tight ends measure up against the rest of the SEC? Find out by reading John Moorehouse’s “Orange Clockwork” blog at www.timesnews.net