Three juniors ponder NFL

Six juniors started for the Tennessee football team this fall, and exactly half of them -- linebacker Kevin Burnett, offensive tackle Michael Munoz and punter Dustin Colquitt -- may be playing in the NFL next season. All three have applied for information from the advisory committee that rates a player's NFL Draft status.

Colquitt had the best year of the three Vols, averaging 45.9 yards per punt to earn consensus All-America honors. He says he won't jump to the NFL, however, unless he projects to be picked in the first two rounds. The last time a punter was taken that early was eight years ago, when the Bears took Todd Sauerbrun in Round 2 of the 1995 Draft.

Munoz, son of NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, has the pedigree to be a quality pro player. He also has chronic knee problems which could force him into early retirement, thereby making an early jump to the NFL more appealing.

''Health is definitely an issue; you only have so many snaps in your knees,'' he said. ''Then again, I love Tennessee and I love the family atmosphere around here. When you make that next step, you're there; it's a business, and that's what it's all about. I definitely have a lot of things to think about.''

If Munoz feels the timing is right, though, he'd be willing to make the jump to the pros.

''I want to know that I'll be able to take that next step, be able to contribute and do well at the next level,'' he said. ''If that's not the case, then I'll stay here and get better another year. This is a great program, and I'd love to stay around again. Either decision I make I think it's a win-win situation.''

Vol tight end Jason Witten jumped to the NFL as a junior one year ago with assurances he'd be a first-round draft pick. He was naturally upset when he lasted till Round 3. Munoz is confident he won't make the same mistake.

''The people helping me out with this choice are people I really trust and respect,'' he said, ''so I don't think that (Witten's fate) would be a factor.... I have the luxury to come back here. I'm in no rush.''

Burnett seems more adversely affected by Witten's plight. The Vol linebackers says he'll listen to very little advice from so-called experts.

''I don't think I can lean on anybody but myself,'' he said. ''If I based my decision on what somebody else told me, and something was to happen, I'd be pissed at that person. It definitely has to be based on me and how I feel.

''You'd better do your homework if you're thinking about coming out. I'll sit down with my mom and my family but ultimately the decision's up to you. I don't believe too much in what people say. People's minds change and people lie, of course, so you've got to be careful who you trust.''

For the moment at least, Burnett is leaning toward returning for his senior season with the Vols.

''As of right now, I'm coming back,'' he said. ''I'm only taking a look at it (draft projection) because it's there.''

There are times, however, when Burnett sounds as if he's ready to declare for the Draft.

''I feel like I could be the first linebacker taken,'' he said. ''I don't feel like anybody can work out better than me. I think my athletic ability ranks up there with some of the defensive backs that are coming out in the draft.''

Even if Burnett were to be the first linebacker taken in the NFL Draft, that might not earn him first-round money. Kansas State's Nick Barnett was the only linebacker picked in the first round last April, and he went late to Green Bay.

''How many linebackers get drafted in the first round?'' Burnett asked rhetorically. ''Nick Barnett ... that's about it. I think there's been three (first-round) linebackers in five years ... which is not too good.''

Signed in 2000, Burnett would be a senior this year but for a Game 1 ACL tear in 2002 that earned him a medical redshirt year. That's why he has the option to return for the '04 season.

He apparently isn't exaggerating when he says, ''I've looked at it from all angles.'' He seems to be analyzing the NFL Draft so extensively that he's confusing even himself. One minute he talks about Tennessee's impending graduation losses; the next minute he raves about the talent that will be coming back.

''Before the season even started, I was thinking, 'Dang, this is going to be my last year with Casey (Clausen), my last year with Mike (Munoz),'' he said. ''You look at everybody that was leaving. We got a lot of guys coming back but half the class is going to be (gone). We're going to be the fifth-year bunch ... the old guys.''

So why would he want to return?

''Look at the people we've got coming back,'' he replied. ''Our front seven probably is going to be one of the best in the country. I would definitely say one of the top three.''

He also thinks the offense will be better in 2004.

''Why not?'' he said. ''We've got a really good bunch at receiver and running back coming back, and two good quarterbacks to look at.''

Bottom line: Stay tuned.

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