The Chic-Fil-A Kickoff classic's sexiest matchup will feature UT's duo of Biletnikoff watch-listed wideouts against the experienced pickoff artists from the Pack's David Amerson-led secondary, but, even if none of them have quite become household names yet, the Pack actually does intend to trot out some receivers of their own.
State basically has two types of receivers: the quick little dudes capable of making highlight-reel plays in space, and big, physical possession type receivers who might not stretch defenses, but should willingly block on running plays and hang tough on balls in traffic.
The little dudes, even if none have been the go-to guy in the past, have played enough to give Pack faithful confidence in their ability to consistently contribute in the coming season. Whether or not Mike Glennon can build on a stellar first season under center will largely hinge on whether the big dudes develop into consistent weapons in the passing game.
Leading the trio of little dudes is Tobias Palmer (5-11, 175 RS SR). A big-time high school recruit, Palmer was the #27 athlete in the nation out of high school according to ESPN, and big-time programs like Florida State, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech showed interest. But Palmer chose State. Unfortunately, Pack faithful had to wait a long time for his tantalizing talents. Palmer ending up going the JUCO route, spending two seasons at Georgia Military College and another year redshirting before becoming a productive starter a season ago. Palmer was 4th on the club with 37 grabs last year, and he is the team's leading returning receiver in terms of catches, yards (496), and scores (5). Fellow senior James Washington, a running back, is actually the team's leading returner in catches after making 42 grabs last year.
Palmer averaged 13.4 yards per catch and showed big play ability with catch and runs of 43, 54, and 65 yards. Another little dude, Bryan Underwood (5-11, 170 RS SO), also has a knack for the big play. Underwood set a Pack record for the longest TD reception by a freshman with a 79-yard grab, scoot, and score against Virginia. He added a second score in that game and finished the season with 16 catches for 226 yards. Though Underwood appeared in all 13 games, he was pressed into more action than usual in the Virginia game due to depleted WR depth for that contest. Hopefully, with more snaps set to come his way, he can approach the numbers he put up against the Hoos all year long.
Little dude Rashard Smith (5-11, 175 RS JR), arguably State's second best cornerback, is back on offense...for now. Smith played on both sides of the ball a year ago, sometimes in the same game, and even supplanted C. J. Wilson as the starter at boundary corner for 3 games. Smith took over the job as starting corner as a true freshman, but a serious knee injury cut his season short and cost him all of 2010, and Pack coaches have struggled to figure out what to do with him ever since his return. Though he made just one catch a year ago, Smith showed signs of being dangerous with the ball in his hands as a punt returner in 2009, and T. J. Graham's graduation to the NFL should open up opportunities for Smith to finally get the ball in his hands consistently. Or, he could move back to defense. Or both. Bottom line: his versatility and athleticism will allow him to make plays for his club...somewhere.
Quintin Payton (6-4, 210 RS JR) is a pulling guard in a wide receiver's body. Though he was on the field for 259 snaps last year, Payton caught just 7 balls for 107 yards with a long of 32. On those other 252 snaps it seemed like he was looking to lock up a DB and drive him 10 yards downfield on a running play. The tendency when watching any sport is to watch the ball, but try to keep your eyes on Payton during a running play; dude gets after it until a tick or two after the whistle. But now that he is slated to start alongside Palmer, the Pack needs Payton to be more than an unselfish guy who tries to get teammates a few extra yards. Payton needs to become the big, sure-handed possession receiver to compliment the shifty little dudes. With the regression of George Bryan and the exhausting of eligibility of Jarvis Williams, Owen Spencer, and Darrell Davis, the Pack sorely lacked the tall, leaping, tough-catch-in-traffic-making type a year ago. Hopefully Payton can be that guy.
Maurice Morgan (6-2, 225 RS FR) is a bit of an unknown quantity, but he is another candidate to bring some physicality to the receiver position. 225 is a load for a wideout, and many thought Morgan would grow into an outside linebacker once he got on campus. But despite linebacker size, he's a receiver. And I would not want to be the 5-11, 180-pound DB that has to take him on.
The wildcard in all of this, and the guy that doesn't quite fit in my scientific "little dude/big dude" breakdown, is Hakeem Flowers (6-3, 182 RS FR). Flowers possesses the height the Pack desperately needs at receiver, but even after a redshirt year to hit the buffet and the weights, he's still carrying around little dude mass despite his long frame. The strength and conditioning folk need to get him off the Scott Wood diet and on whatever Zach Allen is eating. Given his thin frame and inexperience, Flowers is not likely to get a ton of snaps, but his athleticism (38-inch vertical, 4.5 40) and stellar high school production make him quite the potential threat. He had 41 catches for 986 yards (24 yards per catch) as a senior and took 12 balls to the house. Flowers added 31 rushes and averaged better than 10 yards per carry while adding 4 more scores. Flowers spurned offers from the likes of LSU and Oregon, among many others, so he is one of the better gets from TOB and staff in recent years. Hopefully his promise turns into production right away.
State rotates a lot of receivers, so it is possible that true freshman Charlie Hegedus (6-2, 195), who picked the Pack from an impressive offer list that included Oklahoma State, might avoid a redshirt year and play right away. Unlike a lot of true freshmen receivers, Hegedus came from a pass-happy high school system; he caught 69 balls for nearly 1,200 yards as a senior, and that experience might help him be ready to contribute immediately.
The UT receivers and the Pack secondary will get all the press heading into this game, and perhaps that's a good thing for the Pack's developing WR unit. Not only could they come into the game a bit underestimated by their opponent, but they should also have a sizable chip on their collective shoulders. Hopefully that motivation leads to a breakout game, and ultimately a breakout season, for at least one of the guys on this list.