KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee has at least temporarily lost its top three returning wide receivers to injuries in the past two months, and coach Lane Kiffin can't scour the free-agent market for a last-minute replacement as he could in the NFL.
Kiffin's plan B was a trade with his defense.
Redshirt freshman Rod Wilks, a good-sized athlete who hasn't settled into one position, moved back to receiver Monday after spending most of last season on defense.
Wilks, the much bigger brother of sixth-year UT senior cornerback Marsalous Johnson, signed with the Volunteers as a highly regarded receiver from Smyrna, Tenn. He moved to safety early last season and worked some at strongside linebacker before returning to the defensive backfield.
Monday was his fourth move in 12 months, and it might not be his last. Receiver has always been his preferred position, though, and it's the team's thinnest position, so the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Wilks was all smiles after practice.
"I feel great about it," he said. "It's a situation to help out the team, and I'm willing to do that. ... If that's the rest of the year, if it's half the time, I'm just motivated to keep doing what I have to do."
The Vols barely had a handful of scholarship wide receivers after junior Gerald Jones' high ankle sprain late in Saturday's scrimmage. Junior Denarius Moore had his walking boot removed late last week after fracturing his foot in July, and fifth-year senior Austin Rogers tore his ACL weeks earlier.
Jones, Moore and Rogers combined for 55 receptions, 774 yards and six touchdowns last season. The team's current receiver depth chart had 85 yards on 10 catches -- and those came from junior Brandon Warren, who played tight end last season.
The current depth chart reads Quintin Hancock, Warren, sophomore Todd Campbell and freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague, Zach Rogers and now Wilks.
"But all our guys are Tennessee scholarship football players, so there are no excuses," quarterback Jonathan Crompton said. "If you're good enough to wear a Tennessee uniform, you're good enough to go out there and get the job done."
Hancock said the group was "still confident."
"It's tough, but we're going to have to keep working hard, and somebody else is going to have to step up and pick up that slack," Hancock said. "That's all we can do right now, but I think it will be all right, and those guys will be back soon."
All four freshmen were highly coveted by the Southeastern Conference's traditional heavy hitters, but their age has showed as much as their talent through three-plus weeks of preseason camp. Kiffin said Teague and Richardson both had penalties Saturday that brought back first-down gains, and all occasionally have lined up incorrectly or dropped simple passes.
"They made a number of mistakes in the first couple of drives (Saturday)," Kiffin said. "They had the big eyes in the stadium, and that's why we do that. We don't want that to be versus Western Kentucky when that's happening.
"They're going to have to play for us, and they're going to have to do things right and be consistent, because there's nowhere else to go."
Wilks might very well have been the last viable alternative, and Kiffin won't use him much in team periods until he familiarizes himself with the offensive playbook.
"Obviously that's hard to do, bring a guy over this late," Kiffin said. "But it does give us another body over there, somebody who's played receiver in the past -- not for us, but he was a receiver at one point in his career -- so we'll see what he can do."
Wilks excelled in Tennessee's highest classification, winning the Mr. Football award his senior season after catching 77 passes for 1,170 yards 20 touchdowns.
McNeil's knee checked
UT's starting center competition took another twist Monday, when senior Josh McNeil missed practice to have one of his chronically sore knees evaluated.
Senior walk-on Cody Sullins -- who might overtake McNeil, regardless of health -- made all the first-team snaps Monday after splitting them throughout camp.
"I want to say maybe eight or nine days ago, Josh came down weird on (his knee) and kept playing through it," Kiffin said. "It's been bugging him some more. It really, really was an issue for him Saturday, so we're sending him for some more tests -- because you can't just send him for an MRI, because he's had so much damage, they can't really tell anything."
Kiffin wasn't ready to name Sullins the starter, though.
"I wouldn't say this ends it," Kiffin said. "We'll see what the results say when (McNeil's tests) come back, and hopefully we'll have news and he'll be able to play for us."