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9 Tennessee
Ivan Maisel
August 31, 1998
The Volunteers are going to have to Tee it up without Manning, but it's the defense, not the offense, that will more likely give Tennesseans cause for concern
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August 31, 1998

9 Tennessee

The Volunteers are going to have to Tee it up without Manning, but it's the defense, not the offense, that will more likely give Tennesseans cause for concern

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FAST FACTS

1997 record: 11-2 (7-1, 1st in SEC East)

Final ranking: No. 7 AP, No. 8 coaches' poll

1997 Averages

Scoring

Rushing Yards

Passing Yards

Total Yards

OFFENSE

34.3

151.1

331.8

482.8

DEFENSE

20.3

93.3

241.5

334.8

I can't," Tee Martin says. "I can't be Peyton." Martin, Tennessee's new quarterback, says it so simply and sweetly that it's apparent he hasn't stayed up nights wondering if he is the next Manning. The funny thing is, Martin, a junior, chose Tennessee over Auburn in 1996 to steer clear of comparisons. One of his closest friends back in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., Dameyune Craig, played quarterback at Auburn. "I didn't want anyone to say, 'He's just like Dameyune,' " Martin says.

They won't say he's just like Manning, of course, although coach Phillip Fulmer sees enough similarities that he says the only difference is that Martin didn't grow up with money. "Leadership, ability to communicate with players," says Fulmer, rattling off Martin's Manning-like strengths. "He has a lot of pride but not ego."

When Manning announced in March 1997 that he would return for his senior season, Martin happily slid back into the role of heir apparent. "I knew what to do," he says. "That year gave me a chance to sit back and watch. Peyton was so far ahead of the game on the college level. He dropped back and knew what was going to happen. He knew where to go. I worked on that a whole lot." Asked what he does well, Martin says, "I drop back well. I think that I think well. I stay poised. I don't let the last play affect the next play."

Martin played little last season (four games, 12 passes, 10 of them in the opener), which is curious given the number of games Tennessee won easily. The ruptured bursa sac in Manning's right knee that nearly knocked him out of the Orange Bowl gave Martin the invaluable experience of working with the first team throughout the two weeks of bowl practice. Still, Martin has taken so few game snaps that in April, Fulmer set aside his spring-game rule that quarterbacks may not be hit. "He handled a lot of big hits," says Fulmer, who with Tom Osborne's retirement, became the Division I-A coach with the highest winning percentage (54-11, .831). "I like how he bounced up and got back to the huddle."

If anyone needs proof that Martin is no Manning, consider this: The Volunteers will dust off the option series in their playbook to take advantage of Martin's speed. "We've got the line, the backs and the quarterback to run it," says Martin, who spent part of the summer watching videotapes of Donovan McNabb, the stellar option quarterback at Syracuse.

Four of Tennessee's five starting linemen return, as does the best pair of running backs in the SEC, sophomore tailback Jamal Lewis and senior fullback Shawn Bryson. Fulmer brought the 6-foot, 220-pound Lewis along slowly last season, not starting him until the fifth game. That looked overly cautious when, in his first start, Lewis ran for 232 yards against Georgia. He finished with 1,364 rushing yards, the second-highest total in school history. Odds are he will improve upon his seven rushing touchdowns of a year ago.

Defensively, the Vols will be hard-pressed to come remotely close to their performance of last year, when opponents averaged only 93.3 yards rushing per game. With its bewildering option, Syracuse, whom Tennessee visits on Sept. 5, may be the worst opponent for a young defense to open with—except Florida, whom the Vols play two weeks later.

Tennessee has a good foundation on which to build in linebackers Al Wilson and Raynoch Thompson. Wilson, a senior, made 83 tackles at outside linebacker last season, four short of the team lead, despite missing a game with a bad ankle. He'll move inside to replace Leonard Little, who made a switch from defensive end to middle linebacker look easy last fall. Little and end Jonathan Brown, both of whom were third-round NFL draftees last spring, had 22 of Tennessee's 47 sacks. Whether the Vols can replicate that kind of pressure could be crucial to their success.

Keep in mind that it's the defense that causes Fulmer to say, "This team definitely has a long way to go." He's not worried about the special teams, with kicker Jeff Hall back after having made 16 of 22 field goals last season, including 10 of his last 12. The offense has all the tools to be very good, if measured by normal standards. The question that hangs in the air (no, not that question; after five years of humiliation, not even the loudest braggart in orange overalls honestly believes Tennessee will beat Florida this season) is whether a merely good offense will be acceptable to fans as besotted with Manning's memory as they were with the player himself.

Last season, Fulmer says, "We had a passer who passed for 3,000 yards, a rusher who went over 1,000 yards and a receiver [the departed Marcus Nash] who went over 1,000 yards. The fans expect you to win. That's not going to change. They'll be patient to a point."

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