KNOXVILLE — With Gerald Jones (broken hand) ruled out for Saturday’s game against seventh-ranked Oregon, and fellow senior wide receiver Denarius Moore (ankle) less than 100 percent, it stands to reason that Tennessee will need significant contributions from its young pass-catchers.
Wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett thinks freshmen Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers are ready for the challenge. And he believes new sophomore starter Zach Rogers also will produce.
“I think these guys are excited about it,” Baggett, who has coached nine 1,000-yard NFL wideouts, said Thursday. “I think they’re ready. They’ve prepared themselves well. They played at a high level in high school. These guys coming out were highly recruited, obviously. Obviously, they played for very good football teams.
“I think last week, when they got their feet wet, that helped them. And I think that’s going to help them come Saturday, when they have to play.”
Baggett added that Moore’s presence will be big even if he isn’t fully recovered. Jones can help from the sideline, too, the coach added.
“Gerald and Denarius, they help the young kids along,” Baggett said. “I think with Gerald being out here, he was coaching yesterday, and I told him I was going to hire him one day. I think the young guys look up to him and are excited about getting the opportunity to play and also hearing some of the things from [the seniors] that could help.”
Like first-year Volunteers head coach Derek Dooley, Baggett thought Moore could play against the Ducks. But his limited return to practice Wednesday and Thursday made the coaches more comfortable.
“I think any time you’ve got a senior that’s got experience, he can pick things up by just watching,” Baggett said. “But the timing with quarterback, and the timing in the passing game, is one of the things you don’t want anybody to miss ... because it hurts. We’re glad he’s back out here.”
Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris was named Pac-10 special teams player of the week after returning two punts for touchdowns in the Ducks’ 72-0 win over New Mexico.
And Harris isn’t the Ducks’ best punt returner, according to coach Chip Kelly. That is tailback Kenjon Barner, whom Kelly considers “the best returner in the country.”
Kelly told local media earlier this week that Barner — who scored five offensive touchdowns last weekend — will return punts against the Vols, while Harris will help in the Ducks’ kickoff returns.
“It’s going to be nothing like we saw Saturday,” UT special teams coordinator Eric Russell said. “That’s not taking away from UT-Martin, but this is a faster deal. We’ve got to match their physicalness, and we’ll find out really how fast these guys are.”
Russell said he hoped Harris’s two touchdowns from last weekend got his players’ attention.
“I hope it does, because I know it stands out to the coaching staff,” he said. “You don’t get much sleep ... but we’ve got to go play and we’ve got to cover them. All we can do is stress to our guys how important field position is in a game like this, and that we cannot give up any explosive plays.
“We’ve got to go out and execute, because we’ve definitely got a challenge on our hands.”
Russell said the Vols needed “a little better kick placement” from senior Chad Cunningham last weekend, and a personnel change might do the trick. Coaches haven’t confirmed it, but highly touted freshman Michael Palardy has told friends that he’ll handle kickoff duties. Cunningham still is the first-team punter, and senior Daniel Lincoln still is the first-team place-kicker.
Dooley said sophomore Montori Hughes, the Vols’ most talented defensive tackle, improved his effort and consistency late in preseason camp. The coach said that helped explain Hughes’ dominant performance against UT-Martin.
Senior defensive end Chris Walker also has noticed a difference in the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Hughes.
“I have seen him lock in more than I have ever seen him lock in,” Walker said. “I think he realized that the coaches challenged him towards the last part of camp to be the guy that we need him to be, and I think he took that challenge very personally. I think it’s been good for him, because he has played better than anyone thought he would.
“We see what type of player Montori can be, and when he doesn’t live up to that, it kind of disappoints us. We have to challenge him every day, every play and tell him, ‘We need you. I need you to do well.’”
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat