Picking the Best Vols in NFL History: Defense

Down through the decades, Tennessee's football success has basically been built on the bedrock belief that a high-powered offense was no match for a stone-cold defense.

The last college football team to go undefeated and unscored upon, an achievement so extraordinary it's unlikely to ever be equaled in a game that aspires to be increasingly entertaining, was the 1939 Volunteers under the command of General Robert R. Neyland. Much has changed about football over the ensuing 64 years since that fantastic feat, but in Big Orange Country defense still rules the game.

Tennessee's offense, populated with high-profile talent recruited by Phillip Fulmer and staff, may have hogged the spotlight during his decade at the helm but the Vols defense has been more consistent, and it was the driving force behind the 1998 national championship. Even last year when the offense wilted, a Tennessee defense decimated by injuries stepped into the breach and saved the season by extending the Vols winning streak to 14 straight years.

The pros have obviously taken notice of Tennessee's personnel and stamped their approval in their annual April draft. Six of the eight UT players taken in last weekend's NFL Draft were from the defensive unit, including three from the D-Line. That makes six down linemen in two years that have been drafted from the Vols defense, nine from the front seven and 12 overall. Two other Vol defensive linemen, Bernard Jackson and Omari Hand, signed as free agents raising the number of D-linemen signed by the NFL to eight in two years or the equivalent of two entire defensive fronts.

Omari Hand Bernard Jackson Selecting the first two former Tennessee players to build our All Vol NFL Defense around is as easy as finding a traffic jam in Knoxville on football Saturdays. In fact, a very good argument could be waged that defensive tackles Doug Atkins and Reggie White are the finest football players UT has ever produced.

For certain, the 6-8, 280-pound Atkins is the only Vol to ever be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame (1982). He will be joined by White in two years when he qualifies with five years of retirement from the League.

White, 6-5, 305, left the NFL like he did UT as the No. 1 pass rusher ever. The Minister of Defense was also named to 12 consecutive Pro Bowls and was, along with Lawrence Taylor, the most dominating defensive player of his era. White sacked 68 different quarterbacks in his NFL career and finished with over 200 sacks despite playing his first two seasons with Memphis in the now defunct USFL where he recorded another 23 sacks. As it is, he's the only NFL player to ever record double-digit sacks in nine consecutive seasons.

White was a one-man wrecking crew who amassed an astounding 1,404 tackles (931 solo). He intercepted four passes and deflected 62 more, forced 36 fumbles and recovered 26 more, including two for touchdowns. He registered two safeties and blocked five kicks. White played primarily at end over his career, but he was equally effective moving inside where he wreaked havoc with blocking schemes. White reached 100 sacks faster than any player in NFL history (93) which was 21 games faster than Taylor. A stoic symbol of durability, White didn't miss a single start in his first 12 years of professional football, including 166 straight starts in the NFL. Considering the number of double and triple teams he faced, getting hit from all angles on virtually every play, White's streak of starts is nothing short of remarkable. There hasn¹t been a more dominate defensive lineman in the game before or since Reggie ran roughshod through the NFL. His mere presence altered every offense's plans and he was the most feared player of his time.

Atkins came to Tennessee as a scholarship basketball player who also competed in track where he won the SEC high-jump championship. Neyland saw his potential to become a force on the gridiron and encouraged him to give football a try. Three years later, Atkins became the NFL's No. 1 draft pick by Cleveland. He was later traded to the Chicago Bears for whom he played 12 seasons, going to eight Pro Bowls from 1958 to 1966. He finished his career with three strong seasons for the expansion New Orleans Saints before retiring in 1969 having played more games (205) than any other defensive lineman in NFL history to that point.

Atkins was a freak on the football field before the word carried such positive connotations. He possessed almost super human strength and had a legendary temper that fueled an intensity only approached by Dick Butkus and Taylor. When he wasn't throwing blockers into the quarterback, he was leaping over them. But don't take our word for it, read the following quotes from NFL notables who knew him well. including a trio of fellow NFL Hall of Fame players.

"Atkins was the most magnificent physical specimen I had ever seen." - Weeb Ewbank

"One of his favorite tricks was to throw a blocker at the quarterback." - Johnny Unitas

"I played against some mean ones, but I never met anyone meaner than Atkins. After my first meeting with him, I really wanted to quit pro football. He just beat the hell out of me. He rammed me back there so hard the only thing I could do was wave to Johnny (Unitas) as I went by. It was awful. Finally, my coaches convinced me that not every pro player was like Atkins." - Jim Parker

"They threw away the mold when they made Doug. There'll never be another like him." - Tom Fears

"If he gets to you, the whole world suddenly starts spinning." - Fran Tarkenton

It might not be possible to find two players better suited to build a defense around than Atkins and White, and both hail from Tennessee. White is a native of Chattanooga and Atkins a native of Humboldt. Both Atkins and White split time at defensive tackle and defensive end during their illustrious professional careers. So for purposes of this piece they've been split with Atkins at the end and White at tackle.

In truth, Tennessee's list of defensive ends is much more impressive than the tackles it has produced over the years. There are notables like Paul Lipscomb, Dick Evey, Jack Stroud, Shane Burton, Shane Bonham and Darwin Walker along with recent additions of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. However that doesn't compare to the numbers at defensive end where the likes of Steve DeLong, Ron McCartney, Marion Hobby, Tracy Hayworth, Chris Mims, Todd Kelly, Ben Talley, Jonathan Brown, Steve White, Chuck Smith, Leonard Little and Shaun Ellis secured NFL careers.

Leonard Little Chuck Smith with Phillip Fulmer Since the object of this fanciful exercise is to get the best four D-linemen on the field we¹ve added Leonard Little to one end and John Henderson at defensive tackle. Admittedly, Burton and Walker are more accomplished than Henderson at this point and Haynesworth may have more potential, but Big John is the surest bet to fashion a long and successful NFL career at tackle.

After a slow start and the addition of 20 pounds, Little has become a premiere pass rusher the last two seasons in St. Louis where he led the NFC with 14.5 sacks in 2001 and added 12 more last season. Little is probably the most devastating pass rusher Tennessee has had since White and his speed off the edge would be perfect from the weakside of this prolific front.

To complement Little on the left side we selected up-field rush linebacker Mike "Stop" Cofer a former all-pro player and a nine-year veteran with the Detroit Lions. At 6-5, 260, Cofer fit the big linebacker, small defensive end role and had excellent speed.

On the strong side, we'll go with Al Wilson who is the current starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos. Wilson played outside backer for most of his college career where he demonstrated a knack for finding the football and punishing ball carriers with his physical style of play. A good case could also be made for Paul Naumoff who played inside linebacker 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions after his UT career, but Wilson has more speed and is better suited for pass coverage.

At middle linebacker we go with Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds who played that position for 15 seasons in the NFL first with Los Angeles and later with San Francisco. A two-time all-pro selection, Reynolds was the consummate professional who seemed to play his best in the biggest games. For example: In San Francisco's first trip to the Super Bowl in 1982, Reynolds keyed a dramatic goal-line stand that stuffed the Cincinnati Bengals on four straight plays inside the 2 yard-line and provided the impetus for the 49ers first NFL Championship. A two-time All-American at Tennessee, Reynolds got his nickname after allegedly sawing a jeep in half with a hacksaw in reaction to a painful defeat.

In the secondary are a pair of excellent cover corners in Dale Carter and Terry McDaniel. Carter has played 10 years after being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 20 pick in 1992. He has knocked around the League after serving a suspension in 2000 for substance abuse, playing for Denver and Minnesota and currently with the New Orleans Saints. Carter was named the AFC's Defensive Rookie of the Year in O92 after intercepting seven passes including one which he returned for a touchdown. Two years later he recorded 78 solo tackles. At 6-1, Carter is large by cornerback standards and has great speed and quickness which he showcased as a spectacular return specialist at Tennessee. No doubt, Carter has underachieved during much of his professional career but at his best there's been no former Vol that was better with the exceptional of McDaniel.

McDaniel came to Tennessee from Saginaw, Mich., as a wide receiver with outstanding speed but no hands, or any feel for route running. He finally blossomed when moved to cornerback in 1986 and went on to enjoy an 11-year pro career, including 10 seasons with the Raiders. McDaniel was named to the Pro Bowl five straight seasons 1992-1996 and was recognized as one of the League's finest cover corners. He intercepted 35 passes in his career and returned four for touchdowns. He also returned two fumbles for scores.

Roland James gets the nod for one of the safety positions after carving out an 11-year career with the New England Patriots as one of the most versatile DBs in the NFL. James intercepted 29 passes in his career and was also a capable kick returner who amassed 331 yards and a touchdown as a rookie before his value in the secondary became too great to merit the risks on special teams.

James could play either strong or free safety and his position depends on who you would play at the other safety post. Narrowing it down to two drastically different players, there is a real choice here. Would you rather have James at strong safety with Deon Grant at free safety or have James at free safety with Bill Bates at strong safety.

Grant was an early entry in the NFL Draft who plays a great center field, but isn¹t incline toward physical play. Bates was a free agent noted for being a hard hitter, who fashioned a 15-year playing career with the Dallas Cowboys starring on special teams and in the nickel package. He also started at strong safety for a couple of seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl once. Bates finished second on Dallas' all-time tackle list with 701, trailing only Ed "Too Tall" Jones. He was third in tenure playing 217 regular season games for the Cowboys.

Grant missed his rookie season of 2000 with an injury, but bounced back to become a starter in 2001 and 2002. During that time he has intercepted eight passes and recorded 139 total tackles.

Picking Grant would give you a better pass defense, but Bates was more versatile and possessed a penchant for big plays. Things might be different in five years, but for the moment the pick is Bates given his unlikely longevity with a great Dallas franchise and his three Super Bowl rings.

So that's it. There's lots of room for debate, but there's no doubt that a defense that features Reggie White, Doug Atkins, Leonard Little, John Henderson, Hacksaw Reynolds, Mike Cofer, Al Wilson, Terry McDaniel, Dale Carter, Roland James and Bill Bates would strike fear in any offense at any time in the game's glorious history.

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