Five Vols Poised to Breakout

Often the biggest difference between reaching high expectations and falling short is the breakout campaigns by players that enter the season as substitutes before becoming stars.

Omar Gaither is a great example of such a player. He wasn't a starter at the start of 2004 but became one when Kevin Simon went down with a knee injury against Florida. Gaither stepped in to record 92 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and 11 stops for loses to earn All-SEC honors. Hardly the stuff of a career back-up.

There was nothing to indicate Rick Clausen, who had only started one college game in four prior seasons, would become such a cool operator at quarterback. He didn't even throw a pass until UT's two freshmen QBs were injured and he was forced into action in the second half against Notre Dame. Clausen started Tennessee's final four games and completed 60 percent of his passes (81 of 136) for 949 yards and eight touchdowns. That put him on a pace for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns if he had started the entire season. Moreover, UT's running game appeared to find new life and lively rhythm with Clausen at the controls.

Every Tennessee fan expected Gerald Riggs to assault Tennessee's rushing records from the day he signed with the Vols in 2002. However until he broke out with 1,131 yards last year many began to wonder if it would ever happen.

Considering six of Tennessee's 10 victories were by six points or less in 2004, you can't help but wonder how the Vols would have finished without the contributions of Gaither, Clausen and Riggs.

The expectations for this season exceed those of last year, but to reach those projected heights the Vols will need to have some luck, limited injuries and several breakout performers. Here are five that appear ready to step it up.

(1) TURK McBRIDE moved inside to tackle last year, after playing most of his career at defensive end, and he had a productive season with 36 stops and three sacks. However he's capable of contributing more and he may be ready to prove it. McBride has outstanding strength and quickness off the ball. Those are the type of traits that will enable him to excel playing along side Jesse Mahelona in the trenches. Albert Haynesworth had a breakout junior season when teamed inside with Outland Trophy winner John Henderson in 2001, as Big John drew double-team blocks, freeing Haynesworth to operate one-on-one. The South Carolina native responded with a stellar season and was taken in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft. (2) DANIEL BROOKS: Sure, you'll believe it when you see it. The high school all-American came to Tennessee in 2002 with rave reviews that spawned unrealistic expectations. To this point, he's made more headlines off the field than on and expectations have dropped accordingly. Consequently, most Big Orange fans would be less surprised if Brooks was dismissed from the team before the season started than they would if he finally lived up to his potential and became a force at linebacker. However Brooks began to show flashes late last season on special teams and went on to enjoy a solid spring. Now he's at a make-or-break stage in his career in which anymore setbacks could well derail his professional aspirations for good. Conversely, a breakout campaign would set him up for a big senior season and entry into the NFL. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds with 4.6 speed, Brooks has the makings to be a standout rush linebacker who can pressure the passer from his weak side post and wreak havoc in the backfield. Pushed to the edge of extinction, Brooks might finally be ready to fight for something worthwhile — like his football life.

(3) CHRIS BROWN wasn't highly rated coming out of high school and was better known as a blocking tight end than a receiving threat. However as a true freshman in 2004, he displayed a knack for getting open and consistently caught the ball. Now he appears ready to make his mark as an H-back/tight end. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Brown is a big target who can outmaneuver linebackers and pick up key first downs. He's also a good blocker who can get out in front of screen passes to help pop big plays. Brown could easily lead UT in receptions this season especially if Rick Clausen sees a lot of playing time. It wouldn't be shocking to see Brown catch 30 passes for 400 yards and five touchdowns, becoming the most productive UT tight end since Jason Witten in 2002.

(4) JAMES WILHOIT has been steady his first two seasons, but hasn't produced the type of numbers that were predicted when he came to UT as the nation's No. 1 kicking prospect. Of course, a field-goal kicker can do little to create opportunities but he has to make the most of the chances he does get. Wilhoit hit a 51-yarder to beat Florida last year after missing an extra point that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter. He hit 10 of 17 in 2004 after making 17 of 24 as a redshirt freshman. Those numbers (27 of 41 total) aren't bad but they don't compare to Fuad Reviez who made 27 of 31 in 1982, or Jeff Hall who connected on 19 of 24 and 47 of 47 extra points in 1998. Hall was a critical component to UT's championship drive that year, hitting game winners on consecutive weeks against Syracuse and Florida. Wilhoit has the ability to take it up a notch and with a tough schedule that figures to involve several close decisions, he could be a difference maker in 2005, especially if he can avoid the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him in 2003 and 2004.

(5) BRETT SMITH isn't currently listed on UT's two-deep depth chart following an off-the-field incident that led to his arrest and suspension. Neither has he done much to this point in college to suggest he was once a Parade All-American. He did lead UT with five TD receptions in 2004, but finished with only 18 total catches for 291 yards. His career best game came last season against Louisiana Tech with three receptions for 78 yards and two TDs. In the last seven games of the 2004 season, Smith had a total of eight catches for 94 yards and one touchdown. This is the case of another junior needing to live up to his considerable potential. Provided he's healthy, Smith has too much talent for that type of production. He runs precise routes, adjusts to the ball beautifully and can beat the defense on either long or intermediate patterns. This could be the year he puts it all together.

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