Five Minute Guide to '99
If the Volunteers hear one more time how lucky they were last season, they might go out and win another national title
Last season was supposed to be a write-off while Tennessee moved in new players to replace the 12 who had departed to NFL training camps. Tee Martin was a first-year starter at quarterback, learning to fill the cleats of Peyton Manning. Injuries took a toll: Senior All-America middle linebacker Al Wilson spent much of the season hobbled by right shoulder and groin injuries, and star tailback Jamal Lewis tore the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in the fourth game, ending his season. No one imagined that Tennessee would finish undefeated and ranked No. 1.
So how do you predict what the Vols will do this season? Repeating as national champions seems wildly unlikely: No team except Nebraska (in 1994 and '95) has done it in the last 19 years. But the Volunteers maintain that they might be more talented this year than last, and equally driven to win the title. "It's not a surprise to see that everybody is as hungry as they were last year, but it is a delight," says the 6'3", 215-pound Martin, who enters his senior year having been intercepted just twice in his last 179 passes. "I don't think anyone respected what we did last year. People said it was by luck that we won. We have something to prove."
In fact, the '98 Vols could easily have lost both of their first two games, against Syracuse and Florida, and they came back against Arkansas after recovering the decade's most improbable fumble. This year they face what could be an even tougher road: at Florida on Sept. 18, at Alabama on Oct. 23 and at Arkansas on Nov. 13, with a visit from Notre Dame on Nov. 6. The key to continued success will be the attitude of Tennessee's players: Coming off the first 13-win season in school history, do they see themselves as Goliaths, or do they still reckon they're a bunch of Davids?
Senior co-captain Darwin Walker, a 6'3", 290-pound defensive tackle (and All-America shot-putter) who runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds, determined his answer last January. Still on a high after winning the national title, he made phone calls to several NFL general managers to help him decide whether he should turn pro a year early. At best, some of them said, he might go in the second round; others predicted that more than 100 players would be taken ahead of him. "I could tell some of them didn't know a lot about me," says Walker, who by May will have earned his degree in civil engineering. In the meantime he has decided to earn himself and his team more admirers.
Walker spent the winter training in the weight room with some of his teammates. The players wore T-shirts that read CHAMPIONS ARE NEVER SATISFIED -- courtesy of national coach of the year Phillip Fulmer, who after seven seasons in Knoxville has the highest winning percentage (.859) of any active Division I coach. "After we won the national championship, Coach Fulmer got more intense and has made us work harder," Walker says. "I thought last year was the ultimate in hard work until we started this summer."
Walker is one of six seniors who plan on sharing the leadership duties on defense in place of the departed Wilson, who led the team with five forced fumbles. None of the candidates to succeed Wilson at middle linebacker -- Travis Colston, Bernard Jackson and Keyon Whiteside -- won the job outright in the spring, so the Vols are considering a shift of junior outside linebacker Eric Westmoreland into the middle.
Last summer it was Wilson who presided over the unofficial but highly intensive workouts that wedded the new starters to their sense of purpose. Following Wilson's example, Martin found himself running sprints at the university track late on Friday and Saturday nights while other students were out partying. This year Martin has been a leader of the summer workouts and has diversified his late-night training by doing resistance running in the pool behind his apartment complex. "I'm feeling faster, bigger and just stronger in my legs and my arms," he says.
Martin will miss wideout Peerless Price, who plucked several victories out of the air last year with his acrobatic catches and helped build Martin's confidence. But no worries there -- as always, Tennessee has a half dozen receivers capable of taking over a game. The most challenging adjustment might be caused by offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who called plays for the first time at the Fiesta Bowl after David Cutcliffe resigned to become coach at Mississippi. "It's going to be interesting with Coach Sanders," Martin says. "He was unpredictable with the plays he called in the bowl game."
Sanders's job will be simplified if Lewis has recovered from knee surgery. Two years ago Lewis ran for 1,364 yards as a freshman, and he was averaging 6.8 yards per carry at the time of his injury last October. In his absence the two Travises -- Travis Henry, a junior power back, and Travis Stephens, a sophomore speedster -- split his duties, and the Volunteers continued to average close to 200 yards per game. But a healthy Lewis would only make Tennessee's ground game more formidable.
The one thing the Vols say they need is a hint of public doubt about their chances of repeating. "I honestly hope we're not Number 1 before the season," says Walker. "That would show us how much the country disrespects us, and that's the way we like it." Here you go, then -- a Number 4 ranking, and best of luck proving everyone wrong again.
-- Ian Thomsen
1998 record: 13-0 (9-0, 1st in SEC East)
Coach: Phillip Fulmer
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Sept. 18 at Florida
Oct. 23 at Alabama
Everything went right for Tennessee last season. Don't expect the Volunteers to get as many breaks this fall, and don't expect them to repeat as champions.
Five Minute Guide to '99
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