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Do not confuse Carl Pickens's prolonged silences for bashfulness. More likely, he is simply between expressions of displeasure. Pickens, the latest in a line of NFL-quality wide receivers at the University of Tennessee, is equally adept at running in the open field and at running his mouth. In the dictatorship that is college football, Pickens dares to question authority. It is a measure of his ability that authority usually bites its lip and humors him.
Before an interview is 15 minutes old, Pickens has made these pronouncements:
?On last season's 26-26 tie with Auburn, a game in which the Volunteers had led 26-9: "We got all this talent, but we don't know what to do with it. We were up three scores and just stopped throwing." Disgust creases his face. "Ask Phil [offensive coordinator Fulmer] what he was thinking about during that game."
?On Tennessee's 34-29 loss to Notre Dame: "We had them beat. We had the ball, we were driving, all we needed was a touchdown, and Phil keeps running the same pass play—13 Double-slam. Think maybe after the second time they might begin to catch on?" On the Vols' final offensive play, Rod Smith's interception sealed the game for the Irish.
"Carl is an independent person," says Fulmer, with a somewhat forced smile. "[Volunteers coach Johnny Majors] tries to keep a channel of communication open with the players. And Carl uses that channel, to the full extent. He likes to know the reason for everything. There's nothing wrong with that."
Really? Then let a walk-on try some of the stunts Pickens has pulled. Let a scrub publicly question his coaches' judgment, as Pickens has; let him go AWOL for a game, as Pickens did his freshman year. Then count the minutes until his cleats are repossessed. A couple of days in Pickens's company leaves one thinking, Man, this guy better be good.
He is better than good. The 21-year-old Pickens has size (6'3", 200 pounds), speed (4.5 seconds in the 40), springs (he has high-jumped 7'1") and a kamikaze willingness to go over the middle. As a redshirt sophomore last season, Pickens had 53 catches, which led the team—an outfit that sent three wideouts, Alvin Harper, Anthony Morgan and Vince Moore, to the NFL. With those guys gone, Pickens could double his catches this season, unless opponents gang up on him. Or he succumbs to...ennui.
Pickens talks about the difficulty he is having "keeping my focus" now that his buddies are making millions in the pros. Last spring, he hinted that he would declare himself eligible for the NFL draft, then reconsidered. Now he implies that this season will be his final one in Knoxville. "I've been doing those cone drills for three years," he says. "I don't think I'm going to get any better at them."