One of the hard lessons Tennessee football fans learned during last season's 8-5 disappointment was that the importance of senior leadership cannot be overstated. So, who are the top five seniors for the 2003 season?
First, let's establish some criteria. For this exercise, the ''top'' players are those who are (1) productive on the field, (2) leaders on and off the field and (3) crucial to the team's success. That said, here goes:
1. CASEY CLAUSEN, QB: A senior quarterback is always a real plus but Clausen is more valuable than most, since backups James Banks and C.J. Leak have not yet proven themselves reliable. Hampered by injuries and a glaring lack of receiving talent around him, Clausen struggled in 2002. He must bounce back in a big way for Tennessee to return to SEC title contention in 2003.
2. RASHAD BAKER, S: Like Clausen, Baker heads into his fourth year as a starter ranked among the top players nationwide at his position. Since a suspect pass rush could put more pressure than usual on UT's secondary, a cool head like Baker is needed to hold things together when the going gets tough. In addition to his talents as a safety, Baker is a quality return specialist.
3. MARK JONES, WR: He has just four career starts to his credit -- all at safety -- but Jones' emergence as the go-to receiver in spring practice makes him one of the most valuable players on the roster. Blessed with superior toughness, confidence and running ability, he must provide the big-play dimension UT has lacked since Kelley Washington went down midway through the 2002 season.
4. SCOTT WELLS, C: Like Clausen and Baker, Wells enters 2003 as a four-year starter and a team captain. He isn't a vocal guy but he's one of the hardest-working players on the team. His leadership -- on and off the field -- should be vital to a talented offensive line that underachieved badly in 2002.
5. CONSTANTIN RITZMANN, DE: Tennessee desperately needs some pass rush from its front four, and Ritzmann looms as the key man in the equation. After missing the 2002 season with a knee injury, he needs to return to 2001 form and average a sack per game. Otherwise, Tennessee will have to blitz its linebackers in every passing situation, placing the secondary in serious peril.
Tomorrow: Tennessee's top five juniors.