Without experienced receivers and with an offensive line that has question marks, the defense must again carry the load, particularly early as the offense gets untracked. Where Tennessee's 2002 stop troops comprised a solid unit, UT's 2003 defense could be spectacular. That is if the trio of Constantine Ritzmann, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon can return from a lost season that saw Ritzmann lost for the season during a non-contact drill the week of the opener, Burnett lost for the season on the first series of the first game and Simon lost for the season before the end of the first half in game four of a 13-contest slate.
Those series of injuries robbed Tennessee of arguably it's top three defensive playmakers, it's top two pass rushers and a pair of the fastest linebackers on wheels. Torn knee ligaments and a shattered ankle wiped out three potential impact players on a defensive front seven that desperately needed one. The injuries foiled well-designed plans to feature Burnett in a freelance role along the defensive front where he could launch blitzes, blast backs or track passes. Burnett's loss also scuttled plans to make liberal use of the 3-4 defense an ideal alignment for their personnel. The loss of Simon removed the only other player that might have taken on some of those same duties and essentially shelved the 3-4 for the year.
Ritzmann's almost freak injury, which resulted in torn knee ligaments, cost Tennessee it's best speed rusher, it's most experienced down linemen and a genuine tempo setter coming off the edge. In augmentation this tenacious trio could have wreaked havoc in a virtually inexhaustible variety of ways. In effect, they could make an offense defensive by attacking the flanks and probing the interior — first exposing then exploiting weaknesses. They could destroy timing and slam shut holes in sudden blind-side blurs, giving Tennessee's D an identity and swagger.
Of course, such speculation is simply a best case scenario and there isn't a lot in terms of history to suggest one should assume the best in the case of Ritzmann, Burnett and Simon. Ritzmann came to Tennessee from Berlin, Germany via Tallahassee, Fla., in 1999 with the reputation in one-year of high school play as being perhaps the nation's premiere pass rusher.
Known by such nicknames as Germanator, Col. Klink and the Berlin Maul, Ritzmann dominated prospects who would eventually become SEC starting offensive linemen at North Florida Christian. Once at Tennessee he had early success on special teams and in mop up duty as a pass rusher, but he lacked the size to stop the run and didn't become a starter until his junior season in relief of an injured Will Overstreet.
Last year was supposed to be his year, but he never reached the finish line. As a consequence, Ritzmann may have inadvertently set himself up for an even bigger fifth-year senior campaign since most felt he needed a redshirt year to get his size and strength up to the level of his speed and quickness. He has been elected one of Tennessee's captains this year and is in an excellent position to finally realize that standout season.
Kevin Burnett has also been elected team captain, and he'll enter his fourth season at Tennessee with hopes it will be his first complete campaign. Burnett, a native of Carson, California, made the position change from safety to linebacker as a freshmen despite being hampered by shoulder injuries. His sophomore season was also plagued by injury as he sat out several games.
Last year he was finally healthy and appeared headed toward a stellar season. Tennessee defensive coordinator Johnny Chavis had even given him the "special" tag that once belonged to Al Wilson and Leonard Little. But Burnett's breakout campaign cruelly came tumbling down, as he fell to the turf after leaping over a defender while rushing Wyoming's QB on the opening defensive series of the season.
Simon has met more obstacles than any Tennessee player in recent memory. Ranked the top defensive prospect in the country in the Class of 2001 and No. 2 overall, Simon tore knee ligaments in the national high school all-star game and made his condition worse by continuing to play in the game after the injury.
Subsequent knee surgery was followed by the untimely death of his brother in a shooting. Then Simon suffered a setback in his recovery and was redshirted as a freshman. He came back last season and became a starter after Burnett was knocked out. He was named the SEC player of the week in his first game as a starter after recording 16 tackles, recovering two fumbles including one for a touchdown against MTSU. Two games later his comeback came to an abrupt end when he broke an ankle against Rutgers.
The Walnut Creek, California, sophomore was limited in spring drills but expects to be back at full speed this fall. In fact, he should be faster than last year since a screw in his surgically repaired knee has been removed. Simon is not yet a team captain, but he may be the most inspirational player on UT's squad and thus will be looked to for leadership.
This intrepid trio has been blessed with an abundance of athletic ability, but fate hasn't been kind to their collegiate careers. If that trend is reversed this year and our awesome threesome enjoys good health, there is no limit to what they, or Tennessee, can achieve.