The Skinny on Tennessee
Erik Ainge and his Volunteer offense answered the opening bell in last season’s kickoff against the Cal Bears. Ainge tossed four, Meachem caught two, and a very talented Bear group was sent back west following a 35-18 drubbing; this was in line with what we had expected. Cutcliffe’s return, Ainge’s anticipated development, and a solid group of receivers led Cffinsider.com to brand the Volunteer offense as one to rebound in 2006, and an Outback Bowl stink fest notwithstanding, the unit did just that. Now, as the Volunteers prepare to travel to Berkeley to face the explosive Cal offense in a nationally televised primetime tilt on September 1, we have a considerable amount of questions surrounding the offense that will lead Smokey’s boys.
As is the case with USC, most questions deal with the replacement of nearly all receiving yards from 2006 and a backfield that can best be described as crowded. Couple these fantasy issues with Ainge’s spring knee injury and the questions far outweigh any potential answers to be found. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest the drafter avoid any Volunteer in the early rounds, and maybe altogether.
For all of his success in 2006, Erik Ainge threw for 19 scores, and while this is good enough for 9-10 Volunteer wins, it won’t have you sipping any fantasy championship victory beverages. The fact that these were tossed in a “new attitude” year, when the Vols had a serious chip on their collective shoulder following a 5-6 2005, and there will likely not be the same sense of urgency. The aforementioned trip to Cal, along with weekend getaways to Florida and Alabama will provide Saturdays where moving the chains will prove difficult. In short, Erik Ainge is, at best, a fantasy backup, and playing time should only be considered when matchups are right, i.e. games against the likes of Central Florida.
The UT running back situation will prove to be infuriating as Arian Foster attempts to rebound from an injury-riddled 2006, LaMarcus Coker tries to prove he’s an every-down back, top recruit Lennon Creer tries make his mark, and Montario Hardesty tries not to get lost in the shuffle. As emphasized in a previous CFFinsider.com article (Will a SEC Running Back Please Step Up?) the number of split carry situations in the conference make drafting a SEC back high a dicey prop, and Tennessee is as dicey as they come. Still the questions of Tennessee fantasy production at quarterback and running back are multiple-choice questions when compared to the 10-page essay response that is the wide receiver spot.
Robert Meacham had a huge junior season, huge enough to say buh bye to Knoxville in pursuit of riches that accompany first round draft status. His 71-1300-11 would be hard enough to replace, without other losses, but alas, there are other losses. While Meacham bolted early, Jason Swain (49-688-6) and Bret Smith (39-453-5) stuck around for their senior years, and loss of each adds further murkiness to the position. So, who is going to step up and catch slants from Mr. Ainge?
Well…we’ll start with an easy one, the TE position, where Chris Brown and his 31 catches and solid performance in the Outback Bowl return to lead a passing game that will lean on his experience. As you know, we love the H-Back designation for a tight end, and Brown will likely be Ainge’s go-to guy, particularly in the red zone. Expect Brown’s numbers to improve, and he may even earn a cool, yet unoriginal, nickname like “Downtown”. Those who will be joining Brown down the field are still very much up in the air.
The most likely candidate to assume the #1 WR spot is junior-to-be Lucas Taylor. Taylor, with his 10 catches for 89 yards last year, is the leading returning WR and this places him atop both the team and fantasy depth chart. Many will also remember Taylor’s first half TD pass in last year’s classic with the eventual national champions. Taylor will not make anyone forget Meacham, but he’s a solid option who could quickly become Ainge’s go-to guy.
Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe will likely battle to lineup opposite Taylor in 2007, and neither appears draft worthy, even in SEC-only leagues. Rogers is a steady WR who stayed home to play for the Volunteers. Steady is good for grind-it-out wins, not for fantasy success. Briscoe will battle with Rogers for reps, but both will likely struggle to steal Ainge’s end zone looks from the likes of Brown and Taylor. With the uninspiring upper class options, it may be wise to look at Vol newcomers if you’re hell bent on taking a Tennessee receiver.
From our perspective one could throw-in newcomers Brent Vinson (Fr), Kenny O'Neal (JUCO), Gerald Jones (Fr), Ahmad Paige (Fr) and even Quinton Hancock (r-Fr) into a hat and have an equal shot at getting lucky with a productive WR. Each is talented (Vinson likely the best shot at eventual superstardom) and each will get an opportunity to show off his stuff once camp opens back up. Coach Fulmer has indicated that he will look long and hard at each of his incoming WRs this this summer/fall. With this in mind, we'll be keeping an eye on each as we enter summer camp, but can't recommend using a valuable pick on a could-be WR producer for Tennessee until we have hard evidence to support it. If you’re going to take a flyer, use it on JUCO transfer Kenny O’Neal. O’Neal was deemed one of the top JUCO WR’s coming into the world of four-year schools, and his maturity could see him on the field before the others. Yet, we have a theory on JUCO players, esp. JUCO WR’s. Expecting a JUCO to shine is like going on an internet date before seeing a picture: you may be pleasantly surprised, but odds are you’ll end up disappointed. The hype usually doesn't match the production.
We went into this piece with much of the same high hopes of uncovering some fantasy gold much like we did with the USC and Texas Tech pieces. However, we haven’t painted a pretty fantasy picture for the Vols in 2007. Not since Peyton was flinging it have the Vols been a true fantasy team to raid, and even that was limited. We’re not nearly as high on the Vols as we were in 2006, however this doesn’t mean they’re going to have a lousy year. Remember, we’re about fantasy years, and we simply don’t see it yet. We emphasis the word "yet" as this is one team we will be watching closely before the first kick. A large part of our pessimism stems simply from the SEC, a conference comparable to the Big Ten in basketball, where tough defensive play often stifles even the best offensive units. Brown is a draftable commodity and may turn in an All-SEC season from the tight end spot, but that’s about it. Couple the rough and tumble conference with a RB and WR position where any scraps will be shared, and we otherwise strongly advise looking away from Knoxville, in SEC-only leagues but especially in the BCS world.
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