Tennessee had just beaten Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, La., to run the Volunteers' record to 6-1, but the Tennessee coaches weren't doing cartwheels. They had just seen LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson pass for 438 yards and four touchdowns to turn a game that should have been a rout for the Vols into a 45-39 nail biter.
It wasn't long after the Tennessee team bus pulled away from Tiger Stadium that defensive coordinator Doug Mathews turned to receivers coach Kippy Brown with a serious question.
"Doug asked me how many plays Carl Pickens was playing," Brown said. "I said, 'Oh, 20-25 a ballgame,' which is about half of what our starting wide receivers play. Doug said, 'Well, do you think he could play free safety the other half?' "
Mathews' plan to improve his secondary called for pulling sophomore free safety Jason Julian and replacing him with Pickens, a redshirt freshman wide receiver who, at the time, was backing up senior Thomas (T.D.) Woods. The plan also called for Pickens, a gifted all-round athlete, to continue to play some wide receiver as well as return kickoffs.
So, with the enthusiastic approval of Coach Johnny Majors, Pickens became a two-way player--a move that helped Tennessee win its final four games, earn a share of the Southeastern Conference title with Alabama and Auburn, and gain a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Southwest Conference champion Arkansas on Monday.
While his teammates have sometimes had to show him where to line up in the secondary, Pickens has managed to intercept a pass in each of the four games, returning one 40 yards for a touchdown against Akron, his first game on defense. The four interceptions make him the team leader in that category.
During the same four-game stretch, he also caught two passes, one for a touchdown. All told this season, he has caught seven passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
And then there are Pickens' kickoff returns--26 for 594 yards, including one of 93 yards for a touchdown in the LSU game. Only Willie Gault, the former Vol hurdler and wide receiver now with the Raiders, had a better season returning kickoffs at Tennessee.
Forgive Pickens if he feels a little disoriented these days. He was named to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's SEC all-freshman team at defensive back and picked by the Sporting News as one of the nation's top freshmen at wide receiver. In one Tennessee practice this week, he began wearing a green defensive jersey, later switched to a white offensive jersey and ended his part of the workout by catching a deep pass and dunking the ball over the goal-post crossbar.
Majors calls Pickens "probably the most outstanding football talent I've had as far as all-round ability."
In truth, Pickens is simply following up on the high school career he forged in Murphy, N.C., a small town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains about 100 miles from the Tennessee campus at Knoxville.
He played free safety and wide receiver there, too, intercepting 15 passes in three seasons and catching 71 passes, including 24 for touchdowns, as a senior, when he was a Parade magazine All-American.
"You're talking about a guy who never came off the field in high school," said Brown, who recruited Pickens. "He punted. He returned punts. He returned kickoffs. He played free safety. He played wide receiver. He was like a man playing with children."
And football wasn't even Pickens' favorite sport. That distinction belonged to basketball.
"I'd play basketball every Thursday night before a Friday (football) game," he said, "taking a chance on breaking an ankle or something like that. I didn't care. I just wanted to play basketball."
Pickens averaged 27 points a game as a senior at Murphy, good enough to draw interest from some Division I college basketball programs. But being a 6-foot-3 forward, he knew his chances of making it big as a major college player weren't good. So he chose football and Tennessee, a decision based mainly, he said, on the school's reputation for producing outstanding wide receivers, including five first-round picks in the last eight NFL drafts.
Said Pickens: "Being a receiver, why not go where the receivers are and be one of the best?"
Indeed, Pickens was contentedly, if quietly, doing his job as Woods' backup when the decision was made in late October to use him on defense as well as offense.
"At the time, we were 6-1 and had four tough football games left," Mathews said. "I figured, 'We have a chance to have a great year here, but we're going to have to do something in the secondary.' The primary thing was Carl gave us a great speed guy in the middle."
In Tennessee's final game of the regular season, a 17-10 victory over Vanderbilt, Pickens showed just how versatile he can be.
Late in the third quarter, he caught a four-yard touchdown pass to tie the score, 10-10. Then, early in the fourth quarter, he made the interception that set up the Volunteers' winning drive. Pickens had allowed Vanderbilt's Corey Harris to get about two strides behind him before recovering quickly enough to make the interception.
"We had him beat," Vanderbilt Coach Watson Brown said of Pickens. "His closing speed on that play was phenomenal. Only a great athlete makes that play."
Tennessee coaches are talking as if they will use Pickens in the usual way against Arkansas--a full game at free safety, 20-25 snaps at wide receiver and on kickoff returns.
As for next season, his role remains undefined. Pickens makes it clear that, in a perfect world, he would be used strictly as a wide receiver. But with Woods gone, the Volunteers will have a big hole to fill there. Majors says that Pickens definitely will be a wide receiver next season but might be asked to play some defense again. Mathews sees Pickens starting at wide receiver and still playing about half the time on defense.
Pickens shakes his head at such talk.
"I really haven't made up my mind whether I want to play both ways next year or not," he said. "I know it's a matter of team first, me second, so maybe whatever's best for the team, that's what I'll do. If the team feels like the secondary is not going to be that strong next year, then maybe I'll have to be back there and give support."
Would Pickens be happy to see Tennessee recruit some defensive backs?
"I wouldn't want to answer that question," he said.