Very few things that get in the way of 6'7", 290-pound John Henderson—offensive linemen, running backs, cold drinks—stand a chance. Last season, as the defensive tackle was leaving the Vols' locker room after halftime of a game at Memphis, he found a large cooler, filled with Gatorade and ice, blocking his way. He picked it up, flung it across the room and charged out the door, beating even coach Phillip Fulmer onto the field, a no-no. "I wasn't too pleased with how we were playing," says Henderson, whose team was trailing 10-3. "I just wanted to send the message to the team that I will lead you to a victory. I wanted them to follow me."
The Vols won 19-17, and Henderson aspires to have a similar impact this year. If Tennessee is to return to college football's elite, it will do so behind Henderson, the Outland Trophy winner who likely would have been a top 15 pick in April's NFL draft. In Peytonesque fashion Henderson, who sat out the '98 title season under Prop 48, opted for one more year of college life and one last shot at a national championship.
Tennessee has 17 returning starters, including quarterback Casey Clausen, a sophomore who has shown veteran poise. After the Vols lost three of their first five games last year under Joey Mathews and A.J. Suggs, Fulmer named Clausen the starter; he reeled off six straight victories. He also passed for 1,473 yards to break Peyton Manning's Vols freshman record.
Senior Travis Stephens inherits the starting tailback position from Travis Henry, but he carries a question mark: Can a 5'9", 190-pounder be a 30-carries-a-game back? He may not get the chance to answer. The Vols signed two freshmen, Jabari Davis and Cedric Houston, who were among the nation's top 10 running back recruits. "Who's going to step up at tailback is a fair question," Fulmer says. "Travis is a quality back, but there is an opportunity for a couple of young guys to contribute."
On the other side of the ball, the secondary retains all four starters—not necessarily a good thing considering the Vols' pitiful rank (69th) against the pass. Still, with athletic linebackers and Henderson anchoring the front, the defense is capable of big things. At the very least their leader is sure to wreak havoc along the way.