A Little too soon

Among Tennessee players, only the legendary Reggie White recorded more sacks than his career total of 28. Only two Vols notched more hurries than his career total of 42.

Given his knack for the sack and the crazy money NFL teams throw at pass rushers these days, Leonard Little sometimes wonders how famous he'd be if he had finished his college career in 2007 instead of 1997.

"Sometimes I wish I was 10 years younger," the former Vol conceded during a recent stop in Knoxville. "But me and Jevon Kearse (Florida) came out in the same era, and we were those 'tweener guys that weighed between 250 and 260 but still played defensive end.

"I think we started that trend. I wish I was 10 years younger but I basically can say that we helped start the trend toward smaller defensive ends."

Little's college pass-rushing stats are even more remarkable when you consider that he compiled them in just three years. After a season at junior college, he recorded 11 sacks as a Vol sophomore in 1995. He missed five games due to injury in '96 but still notched 8.5 sacks. He posted 8.5 more sacks and earned All-America honors as a senior in '97, despite spending some time at outside linebacker.

Because many pro teams felt he was too small to play end at 6-3 and 250 pounds, Little lasted until Round 3 of the 1998 NFL Draft. The St. Louis Rams then spent two years trying to convert him into an outside linebacker before putting him at end for good. He rewarded the decision by giving them 12 quality years of service.

"I played outside linebacker a little bit while I was here, so I could've played it in the pros," Little said, "but they felt it was best for me to use my speed at defensive end. I played outside linebacker my first two years in the NFL, then played defensive end the rest of the time."

After a dozen seasons or pro ball, Little retired last August. Naturally, he's finding life without football a bit strange.

"I'm getting used to that," he said. "I'd been playing football since I was five years old, so it's a little adjustment, but I'm just enjoying being a fan of the game."

The competitive fires still burn but Little no longer has quarterbacks to sack and ball-carriers to chase. Instead, he said he routinely works out "to burn energy and take the edge off."

He also watches football every chance he gets.

"Now I'm just a fan of the game," he said. "I'm like everybody else but I've got a little more knowledge of the game."

Little played during Tennessee's most successful era since the Bob Neyland years. The 1995 team went 11-1, the '96 team 10-2 and the '97 team 11-2. The Vols went 13-0 and won the national title the year after he left.

"We won a lot of games," he recalled proudly. "That four-year span from '95 through '98 was one of the best eras in Tennessee football, although I left before the national championship year ('98)."

As much as Little enjoyed winning, he enjoyed his Vol teammates even more.

"I had fun with the guys," he recalled. "Everybody misses school but you miss the guys even more. We weren't only teammates; we were like best friends. That's what I miss the most."

Although Tennessee's roster was filled with future NFL players in those days, Little believes the Vols' success was due to more than raw talent.

"Team camaraderie. We had great players but off the field we were friends," he said. "We did things together off the field, and I think that brought us together a little more on the field. We went to each other's home towns to visit and we did a lot of stuff together. I think that's what made the whole time special."

Tennessee football hasn't been very special lately. In fact, the Vols' record over the last three seasons has been a combined 18-20. Little hated seeing his alma mater struggle so mightily but figures it was inevitable.

"You're going to have struggles," he said. "Every program is not going to win games and championships all the time. You're going to go through eras where you're just a team in the middle (of the pack)."

Despite the recent downturn, Little believes Tennessee's current coaches will return the program to national prominence before long.

"Derek Dooley's a great coach and has a great staff," Little said. "I met 'em all, and they've got the program headed in the right direction. He's familiar with our history. I know his dad coached at Georgia but he's trying to teach the guys about Tennessee history and stuff like that."

As fate would have it, Little and Tennessee's offensive coordinator go way back.

"I'm familiar with Coach (Jim) Chaney," Little said. "He was in St. Louis for three or four years while I was there. We've always been good friends. Coach (Charlie) Baggett was in St. Louis also, and I'm familiar with him, too.

"They've got the right people in place to help this program get better."

Given his competitive nature, Leonard Little seems out of place away from the football field. He admits that he may return to the game someday in a coaching capacity.

"One day," he said with a laugh. "I think I have a lot to give to young people - football knowledge and off-the-field knowledge. I think one day I might put on a Wilson hat and throw myself into the coaching ranks."

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