KNOXVILLE — Tennessee wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw must feel like Christmas came in August this year.
He got five huge gifts — four talented newcomers at the position, and the return of junior Justin Hunter from a torn ACL. That doesn’t even include having the leading returning receiver in the SEC, junior Da’Rick Rogers.
“It’s a very talented group that has an unbelievable amount of potential,” Hinshaw said. “Now we have to maximize that on the field.”
Maximizing that talent starts with getting the newcomers up to speed with the playbook, something Hinshaw said is still a work in progress as the Vols completed day six of fall camp on Wednesday. This staff’s approach has always been to frontload newcomers with a lot of information, let it sink in and then return to work on the details.
“We have a lot of weapons, but all the new guys are in the learning curve mode,” Hinshaw said. “We throw a lot at them in install, that’s what we need to do. Summer school is over, and the new guys have to worry about what to do.”
As for his returning talent, Hinshaw likes what he sees from veterans Rogers and Hunter. He said Hunter is back to 100 percent after being limited in the spring with his ACL injury. Hinshaw also likes the leaner and quicker Rogers, who cut 10 pounds since playing close to 215 in 2011.
Hinshaw has a history with one of the new wide receivers, junior college transfer Cordarelle Patterson. He was his lead recruiter for more than a year while Patterson was one of the top prospects in the nation at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College. He likes the 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior’s versatility to play either side or in the slot but wants him to focus on one spot at a time as he learns the Vols’ offense.
“We want to get to where he knows all of them, but we have to start him at one,” he said. “And then we’ll move to another one after that. We’ll be able to move him all over the place — just like we can do with the veteran guys.”
Here were Hinshaw’s thoughts on the other new wide receivers:
Freshman Drae Bowles: “We thought Drae was a really good athlete, explosive and could run. If you look at his junior film, that’s when he had a quarterback, that’s when he was making plays all over the place. Senior year, he didn’t have a quarterback, so he lost that whole year of being able to catch a lot of balls. He’s made some good plays out there.”
Freshman Jason Croom: “He’s big, 227 pounds, powerful — he’s got to learn to use that. He’s got to be able to play fast all the time. He has to play hard and physical because that’s what his attributes are going to be.”
Freshman Alton ‘Pig’ Howard, who is currently out with a broken foot: “(We like) a lot of things about him. He’s very fast, explosive and he’s got great ball skills. It’s unfortunate what happened to him. Soon as we can get him back, we’re going to roll him in as fast we can. He’s got a lot of good qualities you’re looking for in a football player. He can do a lot of different things. We want to get him on the field.”
High praise from Sunseri: Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri wasn’t bashful is giving his assessment of the talent level at linebacker — especially sophomores Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson.
“Those two kids might be the finest young linebackers I have ever coached,” Sunseri said. “Those two are playmakers. I think they both have the potential to get drafted in the National Football League.”
That’s especially high praise coming from Sunseri, who coached at Alabama the past three years. He oversaw the likes of linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Rolando McClain, both of whom were first-round NFL draft picks.
Practice observations: A couple quick-hitting observations from Wednesday’s practice:
• The defensive line is emphasizing foot work and speed. Some of the bigger guys such as Daniel McCullers, Omari Phillips and Alan Carson still have some work to do, but overall the group moves its feet well. Marlon Walls, Darrington Sentimore, Maurice Couch and Steven Fowlkes all looked especially quick in drills on Wednesday.
• In the secondary, cornerback Prentiss Waggner and safety Brian Randolph look very comfortable, but the Vols really need another cornerback and safety to step up and claim a spot. Freshman Deion Bonner, senior Marsalis Teague and sophomore Justin Coleman are the most impressive three cornerbacks vying for the second spot. The second safety spot looks like a battle between Byron Moore and Brent Brewer.