Long wait ends soon for Tigers, Vols

John Henderson, Tennessee's senior defensive tackle and the reigning Outland Trophy winner, has been waiting to play LSU for a long time now. The Volunteers and Tigers, of course, will both play their first game in 21 days when UT (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hosts LSU (2-0, 0-0) at 6:45 p.m. before a giant crowd in Neyland Stadium and a national TV audience on ESPN.

But Henderson has waited even longer. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the Vols' season-opening game against Syracuse because of what Henderson called a dirty block by Syracuse center Nick Romeo. He said he was one-on-one with another Syracuse offensive lineman when Romeo chopped Henderson down by cutting his ankles.

"A lot of people don't believe me when I tell them, but (Romeo) knows," Henderson said last week. "He said, ‘You might as well get ready, I'll be going at your legs all day. That's going to happen all day long.'"

Henderson didn't return to the game. He also didn't play in the Vols' trip to Arkansas one week later and said he wouldn't have been at full speed against Florida, their next opponent (the game, of course, was postponed).

That's why Henderson will be champing at the bit to hit the field for Saturday's game, his first in nearly a month.

"I'll be ready. I can say that because I'm hungry," he said. "I'm just ready to hit somebody right now."

On the other hand, LSU head coach Nick Saban hopes his team will begin to play as well in away games as it has in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers scored 36 points per game at home last season, but it almost looked like a different team on the road, managing just 27 total points in three losses to Auburn, Florida and Arkansas a year ago.

"So I'm more interested in us taking one more step, beyond being able to play in Tiger Stadium," Saban said. "If we're going to accomplish some of the things that we need to accomplish, then we're going to have to be able to take that step."

Tennessee will look for a measure of revenge for last season's loss, when the Tigers ambushed the No. 11 Vols at home for a thrilling 38-31 overtime victory.

"LSU will be a stiff challenge," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said last week. "Their running back (LaBrandon Toefield) is a really good player. ... Offensively, it's the same group of guys they had last year, a year older and a year stronger."

The Vols started their season with a bang Sept. 1 against the Orangemen, as quarterback Casey Clausen connected with Donté Stallworth on a 37-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into game, but the UT offense struggled for most of the game in a 33-9 win.

"Sometimes that's a blessing and sometimes that's a curse to get off to that kind of start," Fulmer said. "Seven points, I guess, is a blessing. But we lost some of what we were trying to do focus-wise there for a little bit. Execution wasn't good for 2½ quarters."

Henderson, who decided to return for another year of college instead of jumping to the NFL, gave the Vols a much-needed boost in the third quarter — just before he injured his ankle.

With UT struggling on offense and protecting a 12-3 lead, Henderson recovered a botched Syracuse snap, which sailed over the head of quarterback Troy Nunes, at the 5-yard line.

Fifth-year senior running back Travis Stephens, who has finally become a starter after backing up Travis Henry, scored from 4 yards out for the touchdown to put the Vols ahead 19-3.

Stephens finished with a career-high 111 yards on 14 carries, including single-play gains of 40 and 34 yards.

 "Travis (doesn't) say much," Fulmer said. "But this kid worked in practice for a purpose to prove he can play every down at this level. I'm really proud of him."

Stephens' backup, Corey Larkins, scored two touchdowns in the season opener.

Clausen, who became the starter midway through last season (after the LSU game), has struggled somewhat thus far. Against Syracuse, his performance led to a chorus of boos in Neyland Stadium, as over half of his completions were behind the line of scrimmage. He was 14-for-27 for 136 yards and connected with Stallworth just two more times after the first touchdown. Quentin Harris intercepted Clausen, the older brother of LSU freshman quarterback Rick Clausen, on the Vols' third possession in the game.

Following the game, Stallworth — the team's No. 1 receiver — had surgery on his wrist and expected to miss five weeks of action, which will likely include Saturday's game. Stallworth ranked second on the team with 35 catches and 512 yards last season.

Aside from the late offensive spurt, both teams' defenses played much better than their offensive counterparts. UT safety Rashad Baker picked off Nunes three plays after Harris' interception, but neither offense could cash in those turnovers for points.

"If we have games like this all year with that part of the offense, I'll be bald before the end of the season," Fulmer said afterward. "I couldn't believe some of the things that happened."

Fulmer probably lost a few more locks of hair the following week, when the Vols traveled to Fayetteville, Ark., for their SEC opener against Arkansas.

In newly expanded and renovated Frank Reynolds Razorback Stadium, during a game that was delayed twice by unruly weather, UT needed a 30-yard pass from Clausen on third down to set up a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter as the Vols beat Arkansas 13-3.

Place-kicker Alex Walls, who tied it earlier in the quarter with a 33-yarder, hit a 25-yard field goal that made it 6-3 with 3:52 to play. Although UT dominated Arkansas for most of the game (the Hogs did not make a first down on six second-half possessions and gained just two yards in the third quarter), the Vols couldn't finish off the Razorbacks until Stephens scored on a 3-yard run with 59 seconds left.

"We knew we were going to have to work," Stephens said. "They always play us tough here."

UT failed to score in the first half despite five possessions in Arkansas territory — including drives to the 2 and 29.

The Vols' best opportunity started from the Hogs' 47 after Baker returned a punt 18 yards. On third-and-six, Clausen delivered a pass to tight end Jason Witten on a short crossing pattern for seven yards. After Stephens 25 yards through the middle to the 3, John Curtis product Tony Bua smacked him on the next play, forcing a fumble that safety Ken Hamlin recovered at the 4.

Following a 21-minute weather delay, Arkansas took a 3-0 lead late in the first quarter.

After the game, Fulmer said he told the offense what it would take to perform in heavy rain against a solid defense. The offense, he said, never gave up despite 70,000 fans and soggy conditions.

Clausen's 30-yard pass fell into the hands of 21-year-old Kelley Washington, a former 10th-round pick of the Florida Marlins who came to Tennessee in the spring. A 6-foot-4, 225-pounder with speed to burn, Washington soon became the talk of Knoxville with some scintillating catches and occasional throws (he also moonlights as a backup quarterback).

But Stephens was the workhorse at Arkansas, carrying 41 times for 206 yards to break the career-high he had set a week earlier.

The Vols also lost wide receiver Eric Parker with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.

After the Arkansas game, UT went home to Knoxville and was set to prepare what has been its biggest day of the year since the early 1990s — the Florida game. That ultimately changed Sept. 11 after the terrorist attacks.

During the week, the SEC said the weekend's game would go ahead as scheduled, then reversed its decision on Thursday. Each time a decision was announced, Fulmer said he supported it and would do what he was asked to do, though he added that not playing the Gators in mid-September was strange.

"Honoring the memories (of the victims) and not playing turned out to be the right thing to do," he said.

Instead of working that Sunday, Fulmer attended a telethon to raise money for the American Red Cross.

Except for Stallworth, UT will be a largely healthy football team when it hosts LSU. Parker and Henderson are expected to play Saturday against the Tigers, as are a few other players who might have missed some practice and games.

In fact, because of the team's relative lack of cracks and bruises, he even considered conducting a scrimmage during the bye week. (He eventually decided not to scrimmage.)

"We had two really good days before this," Fulmer said Wednesday, just after a post-practice autograph session to benefit the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. "We had a lot of individual contact and we're still concerned about some guys being completely healthy, so we felt it was best not to scrimmage.

The Vols started working on game-week preparations for LSU last Wednesday after devoting the previous two days to fundamentals.

The consecutive bye weeks also gave the Vols a chance to develop younger players. Fulmer said a number of inexperienced players have benefited from increased practice snaps because the players didn't have to prepare for an upcoming opponent.

Among the improved players, Fulmer said, were guard Chavis Smith, receivers Michael Collins and Montrell Jones, defensive end Karlton Neal and two running backs, Larkins and heralded freshman Jabari Davis.

"It's been a real plus for them," Fulmer said. "(The week before) wasn't as much, because we had to get ready for a game (that was eventually postponed). You had to get the guys who were going to play most of the time most of the work. But for a bunch of them, it's a big plus this week."

It was also a big plus for big John Henderson, who went home to Nashville and accomplished two main things: nursing his sprained ankle and blowing off some built-up steam while with his family.

"I took it out on my dad when I went home," said Henderson. "We wrestled for a while. I had to do something. I'm just ready to hit, ready to get back out there."

So is everyone else.


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