The biggest play of Saturday’s 41-7 defeat of Memphis is a perfect example. Midway through the third quarter, with UT leading 20-0, Robert Meachem caught a 40-yard pass from Erik Ainge and headed down the sideline. Two Tiger defenders had the angle on Meachem but they couldn’t make the tackle. The reason? Vol wideout Bret Smith chased the play down from behind and blocked one Tiger into the other, enabling Meachem to complete an 84-yard touchdown play that sealed the deal.
Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said the 2005 Vol receiving corps underachieved more so than any position he had ever been associated with. Most of those same guys are back in 2006, yet they hardly resemble the players they were a year ago.
“They’re doing much better … much, much better,” Fulmer said on his post-game show. “They’re playing like we thought they’d play last year actually. I’m really proud of them. They have made a difference in our offensive football team. They give us a chance to be successful anytime you can get the ball down the field to those guys.”
New wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor has turned Meachem and senior Jayson Swain into the most productive pass-catching duo in college football. They've combined for 955 receiving yards, well ahead of the NCAA's second-most productive pair, Keith Brown and D.J. Hall of Alabama (806 yards).
With Bret Smith contributing significantly the past two games, Tennessee has a trio of dependable targets. Vol wideouts are doing much more than just catch the ball, however. They’re running crisper routes. They’re breaking tackles. They’re blocking better on running plays and, as Smith showed on Meachem’s big TD, they’re blocking better downfield on pass plays.
“Not only are they catching the ball, but they’re running really well after the catch and they’re blocking really well and blocking for the running game,” Fulmer noted. “We’re on a good track right now. It’s important for us to stay on that track, as the challenges get much bigger.”
Downfield blocking from Tennessee’s receivers was almost non-existent in recent years. It has improved dramatically this fall, however, now that Fulmer and Taylor have made it a point of emphasis.
“We tell ‘em it’s like a boxing match; you keep punching ‘em and punching ‘em,” Fulmer said. “Maybe they’re midsection punches but they take a toll. Then, when you get ready to run by him (defensive back), he’s looking for you to cut him or he’s tired from having to get up so much.”
Tennessee’s receivers wore green practice jerseys (protecting them from being tackled) in years past and relied mostly on finesse. With the green jerseys off this year, the wideouts seem to have grown up and toughened up. Fulmer couldn’t be happier.
“It’s a physical game,” he said, “and it needs to be played that way.”