By BRYAN MULLEN
KNOXVILLE - Rarely do football players in the Southeastern Conference watch film of opposing players and become speechless, especially when it's a non-conference opponent.
That hasn't been the case this week. Each time Tennessee defensive players pop in a tape and watch the Cal receivers, a little more respect is gained. "When you watch them on film, you say, 'Wow'" UT cornerback Antonio Gaines said. "They're great receivers." DeSean Jackson is the receiver who stands out most. After Jackson caught 59 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns last season, national outlets immediately began labeling him the top junior receiver for 2007. The Sporting News went as far to rank Jackson the No. 1 overall receiver in the country entering this season. But Jackson is at his best on special teams, and UT has devoted special time the past 10 days to limit his big-play ability. It's a must considering Jackson led the nation in punt return average (18.2 yards) and punt returns for touchdowns (five) last season.
Jackson was recently featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and received a five-page spread. It's the kind of exposure usually reserved for Southern Cal or SEC stars.
"He's an outstanding player," UT defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "He had a great year last year, and I'm sure he's ready to have a great year this year. But we play talented guys every week. When you line up in the SEC, that's what you're going to see." It's unclear who will cover Jackson. The Vols return only one starter in the secondary (All-SEC safety Jonathan Hefney), but Vols coach Phillip Fulmer has been more than pleased with the play of Gaines, a senior, and former Smyrna star Marsalous Johnson, a sophomore. The two cornerbacks will receive some help from true freshman Eric Berry. It's not just Jackson that Tennessee needs to worry about. Cal's receiving corps is deep, fast and full of playmakers, including seniors Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. The two combined for 92 catches, 1,276 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2006. "You can't just zero in and say, 'Hey, we're going to stop DeSean Jackson'" Vols secondary coach Larry Slade said. "You've got those other guys that are pretty good, too. They are going to get the ball to those guys. They are exceptionally quick - outstanding speed - so it's a tremendous challenge." Hefney believes it could be a little easier than most think. He said in order for the Vols to limit the play of the receivers, they need to first limit Cal's running backs. "Once you stop the run, it's going to be pretty much easy," Hefney said. "They can't do too much if we're stopping the run because we know they can only pass then. And we'll have people set up for that."