Steve Spurrier, the coach whom Volunteer Nation loved to hate, has gone to the NFL, and Tennessee has a solid core of veterans that will be buttressed by a couple of top recruiting classes, but the sense in Knoxville is more of urgency than confidence. An in-house investigation into improper benefits allegedly received by former Vol Tee Martin has brought the specter of future probation. And looking back to the recent past is no fun either. One week after beating archrival Florida 34-32 to win the SEC East and climb to No. 2 in the polls last season, Tennessee unraveled in the fourth quarter of the conference championship game and lost to LSU 31-20. Goodbye, Rose Bowl. "We had the national championship game in our hands," says junior cornerback jabari Greer, "and we looked past LSU."
Senior linebacker Eddie Moore says he has watched the LSU tape hundreds of times. His stomach no longer flips at the sight of the loss, but he wants to hold on to some of the feeling of discomfort it gives him. "We've got to work two or three times harder and keep that game in mind," he says. Moore is typical of this year's defenders: He's fast, relatively slight (6 feet, 220 pounds) and, having played with departed linemen Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson and Will Overstreet—all of whom went in the first three rounds of the NFL draft—unheralded. Moore is the only returning player in the front seven who started every game last season, which he did despite playing all year with a separated left shoulder (now healed). "Eddie leads by example," Greer says. "He's a hard-nosed guy. He doesn't get in your face unless he has to."
Gone are all four defensive line starters, who made 34 tackles for loss, 14 of them sacks, last season. Their replacements, seniors Omari Hand and Constantin Ritzmann at the ends and seniors Rashad Moore (no relation to Eddie) and Eddie Kendrick at the tackle spots, average nine fewer pounds per man. However, all four have played extensively.
Coach Phillip Fulmer signed players of the year from Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, but it's unlikely any of them will match the impact that wide receiver Kelley Washington had as a freshman last season, when the refugee from minor league baseball caught 64 passes for 1,010 yards and five touchdowns. If only the Vols could get him to come out of his shell. "I definitely feel I'm the best receiver in the nation," says Washington, who'll turn 23 on Aug. 21. "Last year was just a sample. I'm out to show I'm destined for great things." At 6'4", 225 pounds, Washington relied on raw talent last season. Now he's looking to put his experience to work. "I'm counting my steps now instead of just running my routes," he says. "I'm reading defenses and changing routes on the run."
Washington will face a lot of double coverage until a second receiving threat can be established. The candidates range from senior Leonard Scott, a former NCAA sprint champion, to freshman Jonathan Wade. "He's real quick off the ball," says junior quarterback Casey Clausen, referring to Wade. "He's fast and has real good hands. He's catching on pretty quick."
Halfway through his college career, Clausen has already started 20 games. He feels confident in his knowledge of the offense, but when he needs a refresher he goes back to the game tapes from Tennessee's 1997 season. Ole Miss's Eli Manning isn't the only SEC quarterback who's getting tips from Peyton. Clausen will look at the defense and try to guess where Peyton will throw the ball. He says he guesses right about 80% of the time. "His senior year is when he was at his best," Clausen says. "He got to a point where he knew what to do and knew just as well what the defense would do." Some of Clausen's studies have a more specific purpose, however. The Southern Mississippi defense that Peyton riddled for 399 yards and four touchdowns in '97 was coached by John Thompson, the new defensive coordinator at Florida.
The game with the Gators, usually the highlight of the Vols' schedule, may be overshadowed this year by a visit from defending national champion Miami on Nov. 9. "It's hard not to think about it," Greer says of the matchup with the Hurricanes. He should be careful. If the Volunteers learned one thing from last season, it's not to look too far ahead.