Vols In NFL Open Doors for Tennessee

NFL Sunday was a lot like watching UT Saturdays circa 1997-1999 with former Vols shining like an aerial view of Neyland Stadium under the lights on an opulent October evening.

Late last week four former Volunteers, Sean Ellis, Leonard Little, Jamal Lewis and Peyton Manning, from that memorable three-year era — which saw the Vols win two SEC championships, one national championship and compile a 33-5 mark against the best competition in college football — were named Pro Bowl starters.

There are a total of 22 former Tennessee players on defenses throughout the NFL, second to Miami's 23. Moreover, Manning and Lewis, who started for the Vols in 1997 when Peyton was a seasoned senior and Lewis was a fabulous freshman, are currently assaulting some of the most prestigious records in professional football.

With 205 yards Saturday against Cleveland, Lewis broke O.J. Simpson's mark for most rushing yards ever gained against one team in a single season. Lewis piled up 500 yards in two contests against the Browns this season and has 1,953 yards on the year with a shot to break the NFL single-season rushing record with 150 yards next week against Texas.

Meanwhile, Manning surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for fifth straight time which breaks his own NFL record and also cracks Dan Marino's mark for most 4,000-yard seasons in a career. Both Manning and Lewis are prime contenders for the NFL MVP Award.

Manning and Lewis had their best individual seasons at UT in 1997. It was the only season Lewis was completely healthy and even though he didn't win a starting job until week four of the 1997 campaign, he did rush for 1,364 yards and had another 275 yards in receptions. In the 14 straight games, Lewis started in his freshman season and before injuring his knee in game five as a sophomore, he 1861 rushing yards and 2,152 total yards. During those starts he demonstrated the combination of speed and power that make him the most feared back in the game today.

Lewis has an ability to set tacklers up in the open field in such a way that he often has the option whether to run through them or past them. He accelerates out of his breaks, explodes through holes and wears down defenses with his size, strength and speed. If you don't get worn out from tackling him, you will from chasing him.

Manning is simply a master of his craft and that's reflected in the command he has over Indianapolis' high-powered offense. He probably has as much control over an offense than any other quarterback in the game today, making him a throwback to an era when QBs did more than call signals — they called their own plays. He may be destined to rewrite NFL record books like he set and still holds every meaningful passing mark at Tennessee.

During a time of year when Tennessee coaches are as involved in trying to win recruiting wars as they are the Peach Bowl, it's great to have such prominent examples to point to as Manning and Lewis. It may have already paid dividends in the recent commitment of Eric Ainge, who at 6-6, 205, is similar in size and drop-back style as Manning was when he first arrived on campus in 1994.

Speaking of former Vols making it big, Jason Witten reminded Tennessee fans of what a difference a good tight end can make when the Elizabethon native put a double move on a Giant defensive back, and caught a 36-yard touchdown pass for what proved to be the winning score in Dallas' playoff clinching victory on Sunday. Tennessee could have used a tight end of Witten's stature this season to exploit the middle of the defense or to gain mismatches in the secondary. As it was, the Vols only threw one pass to the tight end all season and it was complete for a key first down in UT's 10-6 upset of Miami.

There was another example of the importance of the tight end in an offensive attack showcased Sunday and, ironically enough, it came from the Colts game against Denver. Using a two and sometimes three tight-end look on offense, the Broncos forced Indy out of its aggressive blitz scheme and controlled the ball on the ground for nearly 45 minutes of their 28-17 victory. Having tight ends that could both catch and block made the power formation that much more effective.

Even a quarterback as good as Manning working with a lineup that includes talents like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Edgerin James couldn't do much scoring with ball in hand only 15 minutes of a 60-minute game.

It's a tactic that Tennessee could have employed this season if it had more depth and talent at tight end. Such an option certainly would have enhanced the power running game that was often missing when the Vols like to take control in the fourth quarter with the lead and the football.

The Vols figure to be better at tight end next season with Victor McClure back for his senior season and freshman Brad Cottam, at 6-8, 265, coming off a red-shirt season. UT has also added a commitment from New Orleans tight end prospect Chris Brown who, at 6-3, 240, projects as an H-back type in development. There's also a chance that freshmen redshirts like Bill Grimes and Jared Hostetter could be given a look at tight end this spring. The Vols also remain alert for other opportunities on the recruiting trail, although it looks like Desert Vista prospect Zach Miller, who is rated No. 1 at his position, is a long shot to sign with UT. However there could be a JUCO out there that fills the bill.

Solidifying the tight end position is one of the offseason needs that ranks as a high priority for the Vols this recruiting season, and will go a long way toward returning the type of dominating ground game that has been lacking the last two seasons.

Here's one last note that fits into the theme of this story. Although it's rare for high school players to recall anything about college football that hasn't happened in the last five years, they almost always know where the pros played college football because of voluminous hours they spend competing in video games that use actual NFL players and lineups. Not having Witten this year was a blow to Tennessee's offense, but having him in the NFL might help attract or inspire another prospect that can pick up where he left off.

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