Mark's a marked man

Mark Jones

Prior to suffering minor injuries, freshmen Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain were impressive. Converted quarterback James Banks is showing a world of promise. Tony Brown is as steady as they come. C.J. Fayton seems to be blossoming and rangy Chris Hannon is turning some heads.

Still, the receiver making the most plays in practice these days continues to be Mark Jones. After three years at safety, he's looking awfully comfortable at receiver. In fact, he looks more comfortable at the position he played in high school than he did when he first arrived at UT as a freshman.

''When I came in I was thinking too much, thought I had to impress the coaches, show them I could play receiver here,'' he recalled. ''I was thinking too much about catching the ball -- the proper way to catch it -- and I was dropping easy passes.''

Tennessee's coaches were so desperate for a go-to receiver that they tried Jones at the position last spring. This time he looked like a natural.

''Last spring I felt comfortable with it,'' he said. ''I was more relaxed. It was second nature, catching the ball and running with it. I had no worries or doubts.''

In addition to catching everything coming his way, Jones has spent UT's early practices trying to fine-tune freshmen wideouts Meachem, Swain, Bret Smith and Bill Grimes.

''I think they're very talented,'' Jones said. ''They're catching the ball and they're willing to learn. They're hungry.''

They're also nervous. Freshmen often fret that each practice miscue might doom them to a redshirt season.

''I've tried to teach them, 'You're going to make mistakes, so you can't let them hold you back on the next play. You have to forget about it. You can't get frustrated with them,' '' Jones said. ''They're still young and learning, and we've all been through that before.''

You might think that Tony Brown, Tennessee's leading pass-catcher of 2002, would resent the arrival of Jones and his subsequent emergence as the go-to guy. Not so. He figures Jones will draw double coverage, thereby helping UT's other receivers be more productive.

''A lot, man,'' Brown said. ''He draws so much attention to himself that he gives people on the other side of the field and in the slot more chance to catch the ball. That opens up the offense a whole bunch.''

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