March 5, 2003
Feb. 27, 2003
Coach Phillip Fulmer has vowed to return the Tennessee football program to the high ground it occupied until an admittedly disappointing 2002 season sidetracked one of the nation's most successful and consistent dynasties.
The resolute Vols skipper is leaving nothing to chance in making certain the unaccustomed decline in fortunes is short lived. A veteran coaching staff and a squad with promising potential will be expected to respond with the level of play that has made UT football a model of efficiency during Fulmer's 11-year incumbency.
First order of business -- although Lady Luck's role in it can't be discounted -- will be to avoid the staggering amount of injuries that shriveled the ranks of experienced players available at a given moment during the 2002 campaign.
The raw statistics -- 19 starters missed a total of 71 games -- don't tell the full story of the necessity to bring up untested players and insert them as regulars at critical times against good competition. A greater continuity of personnel will make the Vols more formidable when it comes to finding the right team chemistry.
Assuming questions about personnel are satisfactorily answered in spring practice and early fall workouts, UT fans are confident the Vols will regain the momentum that has earned Fulmer's rank as the second winningest coach in the nation. His record, a remarkable 103-25, reflects the inner drive that Fulmer combines with a minute attention to detail.
Standing in the way of the Vols' return to glory is a schedule that pits them against the usual number of SEC stalwarts and sends them to South Florida for a rematch with the national champion runner-up Miami Hurricanes.
The question at quarterback isn't so much what Casey Clausen (6-4, 225) is capable of delivering -- the California senior is a proven quantity -- but what happens to the Vols when he's not in the lineup. Clausen is money in the bank. In racking up a 62 percent completion ratio last year, he became Tennessee's second most prolific passer of all time. None of his tosses was more timely than the touchdown pass he threw to Jason Witten to put an end to the six-overtime marathon against Arkansas.
Clausen's importance was illustrated when injuries kept him out of the crucial midseason game at Georgia. Pressed into action after spending most of his practice-field time at wide receiver, James Banks (6-3, 200) put in a claim for future action by displaying some deft running and accurate passing. But he needs a great deal of work to give coaches the same comfort level they feel when Clausen's in the lineup.
Determination of who mans the backup slot at quarterback will be one of the key elements in forming the 2003 offense. Senior C.J. Leak (6-4, 225) will contend with Banks for the opportunity to be second in command.
One of the many Vols who spent time on the injured list, Cedric Houston (6-0, 215) plans to cling to the starting tailback assignment the entire season. The sturdy junior showed that workhorse responsibilities suit him fine when he carried the ball 32 times against Mississippi State for 149 yards. He led UT rushers with 779 yards and a 5.1 average.
It's not as though Houston has a lock on the job, not with three other qualified candidates breathing down his neck. The powerful Jabari Davis (6-0, 225), the elusive Derrick Tinsley (6-0, 195) and the gifted Gerald Riggs (6-0, 220) will bear watching for signs they are ready to overtake Houston. Versatility is another Davis quality, enhancing his value because of the ability to play tailback or fullback.
Davis, a master of short-yardage situations, led the Vols with 10 touchdowns and revealed a potential to carry the ball for the long haul when he reeled off a 62-yard run against South Carolina. With 569 yards, he finished second to Houston on the rushing list. Tinsley, too, deserves the versatility tag. He lined up at tailback and wide receiver during the season and even threw a touchdown pass against Georgia. Riggs hopes to see more play after serving mainly on special teams last year.
Except on those occasions when a tailback might slide in for a few plays, fullback should be pretty much the domain of the experienced Troy Fleming (6-2, 230). Underpublicized last year while the media concentrated on the plethora of more heralded running backs, Fleming developed his skills as a runner, blocker and receiver.
Chances to run the ball from scrimmage were limited -- 34 carries for 162 yards -- but the Franklin native set career highs with 21 receptions for 120 yards. Coaches like Troy mainly, though, because of his willingness to lay it on the line as a blocker.
William Revill (6-1, 250) is a sophomore listed as Fleming's backup, along with redshirt freshman Ruben Mayes (6-0, 245), who also will battle for playing time. Fans shouldn't be surprised when Davis lines up at fullback in keeping with Fulmer's oft-stated desire to prepare his troops for double duty -- in Davis' case, at tailback and fullback.
February's recruiting push emphasized bringing in help for the pass-catching corps, which last year didn't meet the usual standards that had earned UT the sobriquet of Wide Receiver U. A passel of highly regarded prospects will make their way onto the campus this fall, opportunity beckoning them to make a first-year contribution to the Vols offense.
The old hands returning, however, hope to restore their one-time towering image as first-rate receivers, capable of turning the course of a ball game with athletic moves that incorporate an acrobatic twist. For years, Tennessee has feasted on the work done by standout receivers.
Tony Brown (6-2, 200) enters the season stamped as the go-to receiver because of his team-leading 39 catches in 2002. Other returnees that coaches will check for a game-breaking spark include Montrell Jones (6-2, 200), C.J. Fayton (6-2, 190), Jonathan Wade (6-0, 180) and Chris Hannon (6-4, 180).
Tight end is one position where lack of experience could be a problem early in the season. Jason Witten, ideally qualified for the job and a first-team All-SEC selection last year, decided to pass up his senior season in favor of turning pro.
Witten's decision left the Vols in something of a quandary when it comes to assigning tight end responsibilities. Victor McClure (6-4, 290) gets first call based on his employment as a blocker last season. He hasn't logged so much as a single pass reception, however, leaving to anybody's surmise what he will do when a spheroid is aimed in his direction.
Listed also on the roster as potential successors to Witten are a pair of sophomores, Aaron Kirkland (6-4, 250) and Jake Finlayson (6-5, 260), both of whom made their mark last season on special teams. As of spring practice, tight end shaped up as a place where reinforcement from newcomers next fall might be in order.
One area the Vols mentor intends to see corrected before the team takes the field against Fresno State is a tendency to give up sacks, a deficiency that imperiled the health of quarterback Clausen. Between Clausen and Banks, the Vols were sacked 35 times; another six sacks victimized Leak.
There are enough veteran and potentially solid offensive linemen on hand to cut the sacks drastically. Michael Munoz (6-6, 305) is counted on to make his junior season his best so far following his return last year from knee surgery. Tellingly, Tennessee's clinching, ground-based 17-play touchdown drive against South Carolina last November followed a path that cut square across Munoz' tackle position.
A battle royal could go all the way up to opening night to determine the starter at the other tackle slot. Sean Young (6-7, 310) as a senior has an experience advantage over the sophomore, Cody Douglas (6-4, 320), but the coaches see Douglas' youthful exuberance as a plus. Depth at this position will be provided by redshirt freshman Brandon Jefferies (6-4, 275) along with newcomer Steven Jones (6-4, 291), who entered school in January.
The question at guard revolves around who will emerge as the leader from a collection of veterans who, combined, should give the position adequate representation. Jason Respert (6-3, 305), Chavis Smith (6-3, 300) and Anthony Herrera (6-4, 305) have the edge in experience over sophomore Rob Smith (6-5, 304).
Rob Smith is considered a good bet to work his way up on the depth chart. Herrera's versatility -- he also has logged starting time at tackle -- gives him added value. Respert and Chavis Smith have fought their way back from the injured list. Redshirt freshman Heath Benedict (6-6, 285) adds depth to the guard spot.
Scott Wells (6-2, 300) was elevated to the starter's role at center a couple of years ago, taking over the slot with no fanfare or hoopla. In the intervening time, Wells' grit and determination have transformed him to the point that he is referred to in official UTAD documents as "a rock in the middle of the line." He is an unerring snapper at a position that demands steadiness and consistency. Scott Newsome (6-2, 230) and Adam Miles (6-0, 225) are expected to continue battling or sharing duties as long snappers for punts and placements.
A sad reminder: Tennessee's string of bad luck with injuries last season had its inception before the opening game with Wyoming. Constantin Ritzmann (6-4, 265), the import from Germany who had bided his time in a reserve capacity for three seasons, was set to move into the starting lineup at defensive end.
Ritzmann's season went up in a puff of smoke when, in the final major scrimmage before the first game, he sustained a season-ending injury to his knee. A rigorous rehabilitation year behind him, Ritzmann figures to resume his career in the defensive line, probably as the starter at right end. Karlton Neal (6-4, 255) may have something to say about that. Neal took over the job when Ritzmann was injured, started three games, dropped to reserve status but will try to win back a first-team assignment.
Co-captain Omari Hand ended his service with the Vols last season, opening the doors for a fight to succeed him among sophomores Parys Haralson (6-2, 240), J.T. Mapu (6-5, 260) and other candidates plugging for a promotion. Demetrin Veal joined Hand in the graduation ranks, creating a situation in which experience will be in short supply. Mapu, a defensive end who practices the Mormon religion, has postponed his church mission and is a candidate for playing time this fall along with Jason Hall (6-3, 265), who lettered as a freshman, and sophomore Ovince Saint Preux (6-3, 220).
Both starting tackles finished their UT eligibility, setting the stage for an intense battle among inexperienced hopefuls to take over first-team berths. Rashad Moore and Aubrayo Franklin graduated, as did first-line backup Edward Kendrick.
Unlike the wide receivers situation, where new signees should make a significant contribution, recruiting dividends might not soon be apparent at defensive tackle. The Vols' main experience at this position comes in the form of Mondre Dickerson (6-5, 290), who logged considerable backup time last year. The only other lettermen returning are senior Terriea Smalls (6-3, 305) and sophomore Greg Jones (6-6, 300), neither of whom played extensively last season. Smalls' toughness led to his employment in short-yardage defense. Coaches will look for signs of quick development from two redshirt freshmen -- Justin Harrell (6-4, 300) and LaRon Harris (6-3, 305).
Tennessee posted highly respectable statistics on defense last season, an
achievement that takes on a miraculous cast when the injury situation among
linebackers is weighed. The physical damage they suffered gives credence to
a long-held theory -- usually expressed by linebackers -- that "linebacker
is where it's at."
To say Tennessee has only four defensive starters returning might be a bit misleading. Two linebacker lettermen listed on the 2003 roster were on the first team and regarded as game-breakers until injuries kayoed them for the rest of the season. Neither had played in enough games to earn the distinction of being listed as starters in the season capsule.
First linebacker to be lost for the year was Kevin Burnett (6-3, 235), who went down in the first quarter of the opening game. He returns at right linebacker, eager to resume his role as disrupter of opponent offenses. Kevin Simon (5-11, 225) moved in as Burnett's replacement and quickly showed why his return from a previous knee injury was eagerly anticipated. In his first start Simon had 11 tackles and registered a fumble recovery TD.
Two games later, Simon sustained an injury that shelved him. Expected to play
on the left side, he and Burnett should form a destructive duo at the outside
Located between Simon and Burnett, filling the middle linebacker slot, will be Robert Peace (6-3, 235), who bowed to the injury bug, too, but lasted deeper into the season than his two teammates. Peace went out in the early November game with Miami.
Rising from the linebacker corps rubble was Jason Mitchell (6-1, 220), who finished the season still on his feet. Mitchell started four games and factors into an expected scramble for playing time among a talented assembly of candidates. Omar Gaither (6-2, 225) and Marvin Mitchell (6-3, 230) are two others who were called to service because of the mounting injury toll. An addition during spring practice will be early enrollee Jon Poe (5-11, 235), who arrived at mid-semester from Coffeyville Community College.
Jabari Greer (5-10, 175), a steady playmaker for three years, will employ his nose for the football at one of the cornerback slots. In and out of the starting lineup last season, Greer made his presence known by breaking up a team-leading 14 passes. He and safety Rashad Baker (5-11, 185), both seniors, give the secondary stability on the basis of their experience. They will be entrusted with critical leadership responsibilities. Corey Larkins (5-8, 205), better known for his kick return prowess, can help at cornerback.
Robert Boulware (5-10, 185) is a sophomore who spent time with special teams as an apprenticeship for his campaign to win a starting cornerback post. Jason Allen (6-2, 200) is only asking for a chance to play; where, is immaterial to the ambitious sophomore. His most likely role appears to be as first-line reserve at either cornerback. With Julian Battle and Willie Miles no longer around, Boulware and Allen will have an early opportunity.
Baker, bouncing back from a knee injury that kept him out of the last three regular season games but did not prevent his earning All-SEC, is the reigning graybeard of the secondary, sound in every respect. At the time of his injury, Baker was leading the league in interceptions. He was mentioned last season as a possibility to put some spark into the wide receivers corps, but the needs of the secondary prevailed and he stayed put. Baker and Mark Jones (5-9, 185) team up to give the Vols highly competent play at free safety.
Meeting expectations that junior college products will provide immediate help, Gibril Wilson (6-1, 190) turned out to be a valuable scholarship investment for the 2002 Vols. By mid-October he had developed at strong safety to the point he made 11 tackles in the Georgia game and is the leading returning tackler with 82 hits. His alert play nailed down a starting job that puts him in position to play a key role in his senior season. He figures to join Greer and Baker in giving the Vols secondary a wicked wallop. Allen could be a backup at strong safety as well.
At Tennessee, where the kicking game has been king ever since the days of Gen. Robert Neyland, you couldn't be much more comfortable than with the current punting game. Dustin Colquitt (6-2, 196), second team all-conference, has two years remaining with the Vols.
Colquitt averaged 43.6 yards and was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, the top national honor available for a punter. The situation with Colquitt contrasts sharply with the placekicking area, which is wide open after the graduation of Alex Walls.
(6-1, 190) and James Wilhoit (5-10, 190) will battle it out in spring
practice and possibly into fall workouts. Mark Jones, Rashad Baker and Corey
all have distinguished themselves on kickoff and punt returns, constituting
a valuable head start over anybody who might challenge them.