Staff File Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press UT's Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore celebrate Jones' touchdown in the second half of the game against Wyoming at Neyland Stadium.
KNOXVILLE — As Denarius Moore racked up ridiculous yardage and Gerald Jones made several diving catches last Saturday at South Carolina, one couldn’t help but question why Tennessee’s senior duo of wide receivers waited so late in the season to break out in a big way, on a big stage.
“They put on a show,” coach Derek Dooley said.
But why did that show debut in late October?
Wideouts coach Charlie Baggett offered a simple-word answer: “Opportunities.”
Basically, Jones and Moore were nearly 100 percent healthy and on the field at the same time, and Volunteers quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray had a few more fractions of a second to throw in some situations.
“I think it’s all about opportunities, you know,” Baggett said. “And I think if Gerald and Denarius had more balls thrown their way, they could’ve caught more earlier. But there’s a lot of reasons for it. We’re trying to establish a running game in certain games, or [opponents] took them away, or we just couldn’t get it to them.”
Another problem, especially in Jones’ case, has been staying on the field. Jones caught six passes for 86 yards in UT’s season-opening blowout over UT-Martin, but he broke a small bone in his hand in the second half and missed the next three games after the subsequent surgery. He played well in his return at LSU, but he caught only five passes for 46 yards despite seeming wide open most of the game.
“You could see how much we missed him when he wasn’t on the field, and him coming back just opens up a lot of plays for us,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “He’s wise, he’s a good player, he’s been around a long time and he knows how to play the game. He’s helping these young kids as they grow into their spots, so we’re real pleased with Gerald.”
Moore left the lineup soon after Jones returned. After catching a total of four passes for just 37 yards at LSU and Georgia, Moore missed nearly the entire Alabama game. He took a blow to the head on the game’s second play and didn’t return.
Both seniors were available all day at South Carolina the following week, though. And both had big games. Moore, who entered that game with 257 yards on 18 receptions, amassed 228 yards on six catches against the Gamecocks.
Jones added 49 yards on six catches, leaving his feet for most of them, including an impressive 17-yard touchdown that set up the tying extra point early in the fourth quarter.
“Denarius was kind of the star because of the big plays, but Gerald made some really big plays to keep the drives alive,” Dooley said. “That’s what we need from seniors. That’s what we need from guys who are experienced football players, that kind of production.
“And when you do, you get results.”
Moore admitted slight frustration about waiting so long for those results. Jones, meanwhile, hardly ever seems to have “slight” feelings about any subject.
“That’s what we were hopefully expecting to happen early in the year,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, we had a couple of roadblocks and obstacles. But yeah, that’s what we expect.”
Wide receiver egos often need more massaging than other positions, but Baggett has made a career from doing just that. His 33 years in coaching have been spent with a long list of NFL receivers, some of them mercurial talents such as Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Plaxico Burress and Andre Rison.
Jones’ private and public personas are equally fiery, but Baggett said the publicly understated Moore has occasionally been equally uneasy.
“I was pleased with the kind of day that he had,” Baggett said. “I wished we’d have scored a few more to win the football game, but he had a good game. And you know, he’s got that in him. He really does. He just has to be more patient in [us] getting the ball to him. Sometimes they get upset when they don’t get a ball, but there’s only one ball on the field and you can’t get it to him all the time.
“You’ve got to learn that if you execute and do what you’re suppose to do, eventually the ball will come to you.”
Anxiety seems a natural byproduct of a slow start to one’s senior season, but Saturday wasn’t UT’s season finale. If they stay healthy, Jones and Moore will have at least four more college games to make big plays.
The Memphis Tigers’ porous defense is statistically the safest bet on November’s schedule for another big day, but it’s not the only one.
Jones joked that Saturday’s game plan was designed for Moore to have another 200-yard day.
“I don’t know. That’s up to the coaches,” Jones smilingly replied when asked when he’d have a game like Moore’s at South Carolina. “From the play calling, it looks like Denarius is going to have another [dang] good game.”
Jones has accepted his role as the underneath receiver who complements Moore’s deep routes, but he’s argued for years — especially this season — that his top-end speed isn’t appreciated.
“I think that people kind of underestimate Gerald’s running ability,” Baggett said. “You know, I think he can kind of run a little bit, too. And if you look at his career over the years, it’s kind of been pretty good. He’s gotten some long touchdowns, too. But ... Denarius has speed, he can run, and Gerald works up underneath and can get in and out of breaks and move the sticks.
“They do complement each other.”
And they both might play on Sundays, added Baggett, who coached in the NFL for 11 years and has worked with more than 10 wideouts who surpassed 1,000 yards in professional season.
“Oh, I think they’ll have an opportunity to play in the league,” Baggett said. “You know, I don’t know exactly whether they’ll get drafted or where they’ll get drafted, but I think both of those guys have the talent level to play in that league.”