Vols Have History as NFL Weapons Provider

This is part one of a three-part series on Tennessee's offense — How it compares to recent predecessors? Its stars in the making and where it might be headed as a team next season.

Once known as Wide Receiver U, Tennessee has broadened its scope to produce a steady stream of NFL caliber talent in recent years at virtually every offensive position.

That's one reason last season's struggles on offense caught everyone off guard, and it's also why no one should be surprised to see the Vols return to prime form this season with football in hand.

Consider that since Phillip Fulmer took over as head coach in 1993, the Volunteers have had at least one offensive player taken in the first or second round of the NFL Draft. Included in that list are two quarterbacks taken in the first three picks in Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning.

At running back over that period of time, Tennessee has had two taken in the first round in James Stewart and Jamal Lewis, two taken in the second round in Charlie Garner and Travis Henry, and two taken in the third round in Shawn Bryson and Jay Graham. Aaron Hayden was taken in the fourth round by San Diego in 1995 and Travis Stephens in the fifth round by Tampa Bay last year. That's nine NFL running backs — all made rosters while five became starters — from one team in 10 years.

The story is much the same at wide receiver where nine UT players have been drafted in 10 years under Fulmer, including first round picks Marcus Nash and Donte Stallworth. Other notables are Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson and Joey Kent. David Martin who played wide receiver and H-back for Tennessee was drafted as a tight end by Green Bay.

It's highly likely that both Jason Witten and Kelley Washington will go in the first round of this year's draft upping UT's figure to 10 wideouts and a pair of tight ends.

Counting the expansion draft, a total of 64 Tennessee players have been taken by NFL teams in the last 10 years and 35 of those are offensive players. That translates to Tennessee having 14 offensive players on the roster with NFL futures during any average season under Fulmer.

That's staggering when you consider the potential for individual earnings, national exposure for UT and ticket sales created by those players. Offense sells tickets, which helps when you have an 108,000 seats to fill and it also grabs ratings, which means if you have a high-octane offense with high-profile players you're guaranteed national air time practically anytime you tee it up.

It also gives you the ability to overcome a bad start, turnovers or weak defense, which means people stay at the game even if the home team falls behind by a lot and viewers are more likely to stay tuned at home. Is there anything in football more exciting than a great comeback?

Tennessee lacked those dimensions last year and not only did fans give up the ghost a lot earlier than usual, but the networks lost interest in a team that couldn't produce a competitive game.

True enough, defense wins championships but it doesn't cure impotence and any offense that can't attack will be eventually be destroyed. Allow an SEC defense to operate in an attack mode and it will eventually blow up the offense, forcing mammoth mistakes. Reference last season's Florida and Alabama games for examples of this phenomenon.

Even with the best of defenses, a team still needs an offense that can drive the defense back, take care of the football, provide time for the defense to recover and score enough points to turn up the heat. Some offense is for show, other offense is for doe to borrow a metaphor from the links during Masters week. Unfortunately, Tennessee's offense was neither last season although it did approximate the latter in the back half of the SEC schedule. Even at its best last season, Tennessee's offense was far enough below Vol standards to cause serious concern.

No doubt injuries had a lot to do with the performance of the offense, but not enough to explain the litany of aliments that afflicted UT's 2002 attack. Many of the problems like turnovers, poor snap exchanges, dropped balls, breakdowns in protection, blown routes, bad reads and unforced penalties were related to discipline or lack of preparation. Outside of a true freshman, a player's experience level should have no impact on knowing plays and checkoffs. It has no bearing on remembering the snap count or blocking the wrong man.

But before I'm flagged for piling on, let me quickly inject that this is actually a prelude to a very positive prospectus. While it couldn't be proved by last year's performance, Tennessee's offense has plenty of talent and may even exceed the 14 NFL player average alluded to earlier.

Admittedly, it's talent that's unproved at some positions, undeveloped at others and untested as a team, but Tennessee has a chance to be outstanding offensively before next season is concluded. Any further projections await the arrival or the emergence of a top flight quarterback.

Of course the development of a cohesive offensive line is the key to a rapid recovery and would provide a foundation for further improvement. With a healthy, heady Clausen at the controls and a ton of receiving talent coming aboard, a formidable front waiting to be formed and a stable of big-time tailbacks ready to turn loose, Tennessee might return to its juggernaut form of 90's.

Part Two: We'll speculate on Tennessee's future NFL Draft choices and list our top 14 in order.

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