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.
August 25, 1991
"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."
Harper, now with the Dallas Cowboys, called Pickens during minicamp to needle him. "It's great here," said Harper. "Here you catch the ball any way you want."
At Tennessee, if you make a one-handed catch of a ball that you could have gotten both hands on, you will be disciplined. "They're really strict," says Pickens.
Because they are demanding, Tennessee's coaches have had six wide receivers drafted in the first round since 1982. "We sell the kids on one thing," says former receivers coach Kippy Brown, who left Tennessee in early 1990 to become the running backs coach of the New York Jets. "You don't get better during the games. You get better during practice, through drill work."
Brown quickly discovered how contrary Pickens could be. In 1988 the Volunteers were off to a wretched 0-5 start and faced powerful Alabama as their next opponent. Desperate to salvage the season, Majors and his staff decided to remove three true freshmen from redshirt status. Two jumped at the chance. The third, Pickens, wanted to know if the coaches were serious.
"They told me, 'We're bringing you out of your redshirt,' " he recalls, "and I'm thinking, What kind of bull is that? What am I going to do—turn the season around?"
At the team meeting the day before the Alabama game, Brown looked around. There was no Pickens. At practice, still no Pickens. Brown called the Pickens residence in Murphy, N.C., and asked Carl's mother, & Mary, if she had seen her son. "He just drove down the street with some of his buddies," she I cheerfully reported.
Pickens was guaranteeing himself a full four years of eligibility the best way he knew how. The coaches came down on him for his defiance—sort of. "We ran him after practice for three days," says Brown. Three days! How draconian! If a third-string lineman doesn't show up for a game, do you think he gets off with a few extra postpractice gassers? Not a chance; he gets weekday afternoons off for the rest of his college career. Pickens knew that he wasn't expendable; he acted on that knowledge and so remained a redshirt.
The following season, after LSU riddled the Volunteers for 423 passing yards, the then defensive coordinator Doug Mathews pleaded with Majors for permission to conscript Pickens for the secondary. Majors's Solomon-like compromise—let Pickens play both ways—made everyone happy. Everyone but Pickens. Though he was a smash hit at free safety, actually performing better than he had as a wide receiver—in five games he had five interceptions and was defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl—Pickens was disgruntled all season. Contrary to the coaches' promises that he would get 20 to 25 snaps per game at wideout, he got no more than five a game.
Said Brown, "I hope Carl trusts us enough to know we're going to do what's best."
Trust? Pickens had observed coaches long enough to know that he could trust them to do one thing: Cover their own posteriors.
Pickens has never been one to enter into easy trusts; has never been one for blind obedience. That's part heredity—"He's always been stubborn," says Mary Pickens—and part environment. Murphy is a sleepy town of 2,000 nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its rural charms belie a certain unsavoriness. Virtually all of Murphy's black families, the Pickenses included, live outside town, across the railroad tracks in a community called Texana, as they have for generations. If some people have their way, blacks will continue to do so for generations to come. In the summer of 1990, the Ku Klux Klan marched in Murphy.
Pickens used to dismiss recruiters from distant schools when he was a scholastic All-America, telling them he wanted to stay close to home. "Now," says Pickens, "I hardly ever go home. When I do, I don't stay long."
During two-a-days in August, as the Murphy Bulldogs go through prepractice stretching, Dave Gentry, Pickens's high school coach, enjoys walking up and down the rows of his cranky, perspiring athletes, exclaiming, "It's a great day to be a football player!" But during the Pickens Era at Murphy, when the Bulldogs won two state championships, Gentry had to get away from that exclamation. Pickens was always correcting him.
"No," he would say, "it's a great day to be a coach."
Last season at Tennessee, freed from his duties at free safety, free to concentrate on receiving, Pickens caught 13 passes against Notre Dame and 10 more against Kentucky, and led all Southeastern Conference receivers—even though he shared the playing time with three NFL-bound wideouts.
He could be the best receiver Tennessee has ever had. But Brown would like to see Pickens "learn to handle adversity better"—no sulking during games when things aren't going well. And Pickens needs to rely less on raw talent, more on technique. "He can blow by people, so his routes are not as crisp and disciplined as they could be," says Brown. "Right now, that works. What happens when he runs into a guy who's as good an athlete as he is?"
Pickens has no problems with that assessment. How can you tell? He hears it, digests it...and keeps his silence.