Does UT Have the Leaders To Go All the Way?

Sizing up a title contender in football without considering the quality of its leaders is like betting on a race horse without knowing the history of its rider. In other words, even the most talented thoroughbred will produced mixed results with an unsteady hand on the reins.

A first-rate trainer can make a significant difference in a horse's level of preparation, but only the jockey can call the shots in the heat of competition. The same is true with an outstanding head football coach and his team. He can prepare his players for peak performance, place personnel and provide a sound game plan, but you still need an on-the-field leader to quiet the storm or crack the whip. You need somebody to take the team's pulse and set an emotional tone; someone to chew tail, pat fanny, whisper encouragement, bark orders and back up his boast with big plays in big moments.

Sometimes it helps if the leader has a sense of humor, or even a sense of irony. Remember Super Bowl XXXIII in 1989 when San Francisco QB Joe Montana calmed his team in the huddle by pointing out actor John Candy sitting in stands. There in the shadow of his own goal post with the 49ers trailing 16-13, under two minutes remaining and over 200 million fans transfixed on the drama at hand, there was Joe Cool stargazing and appearing totally impervious to pressure.

The message to his team was that this is just another day at the office and all they had before them was a piece of work. The team responded with a perfectly executed touchdown drive that consumed the clock and sucked the life out of the Bengals.

As a coach you can pick starters, place them at a position even appoint captains, but leaders tend to be born in the crucible of battle. They have an ability to play their best when they're needed the most and, as a consequence, they make everybody around them better.

When Tennessee won the national championship in 1998, Al Wilson was a team captain and the unquestioned leader of the pack. Wilson was also the emotional sparkplug for the 1997 UT squad, although he didn't serve as captain that season.

Since capturing their first national title in 47 years in ‘98, the Vols have been looking for another crown. They've also been looking for another leader of Al Wilson's caliber. If such a leader existed, it seems like coach Phillip Fulmer would have already appointed that player as a captain. Then again, he may have wanted to provide added incentive by leaving the vacancies in order to evaluate the offseason workouts in hopes clear cut candidates for captain would emerge.

We don't know if the cream has risen to the top, but if history is any indicator the eventual captains are likely to be seniors who play either linebacker or quarterback. Those are the two positions that lend themselves most favorably to leadership because of the calls they make and the impact they have on games.

In 1999 Tee Martin was a senior quarterback and captain, Peyton Manning earned the same honor in 1997 as did Jimmy Streater in 1979 and Condredge Holloway in 1974. Heath Shuler exited early for the NFL after his junior season and never served as a UT captain. Ditto for Allen Cockrell who opted for the Major League draft.

Although junior signal caller Casey Clausen is unquestionably one of the most visible leaders on the 2002 Tennessee team, he's not likely to become a captain until next year. In fact the only certain Tennessee senior starter on offense is tackle Will Ofenheusle.

The defense has six projected senior starters including four in the defensive line, but only two have ever earned starting positions — defensive back Julian Battle and linebacker Eddie Moore. Since Battle is a JC transfer, Moore appears the most likely Vol to be named captain and should emerge as the defensive leader. Moore was not only one of UT's top tacklers last season, he also landed a blow against Florida that set the tone for a game in which the Vols were clearly more physical than the Gators.

A native Tennessean who has exceeded expectations at UT, Moore has the all the ingredients to become an outstanding leader and captain. But who will join him in the key role of on-field leader?

Clausen has charisma and attitude to fill the bill and his success in leading the Vols on numerous comebacks as a freshman and sophomore cement his role as offensive leader. And with only one returning senior starter on offense, Clausen could even be the exception that is named captain as a junior.

In the absence of a strong senior class, Tennessee will have to rely heavily on its underclassmen for leadership this season. In addition to Clausen, players such as Jason Witten, Kevin Burnett, Michael Munoz, Jabari Greer and Rashad Baker could help fill the void. Then there's potential senior starters like Keyon Whiteside at middle linebacker and Leonard Scott at wide receiver. Even a four-year starter like place kicker Alex Walls could contribute as a leader.

Two areas of potential leadership could come from unlikely sources. On the surface wide receiver Kelley Washington has more strut than a peacock and his proclivity for self promotion is well known. However Washington has the type of confidence that borders on arrogance and he brings an energy to the offense that is contagious. He is also the oldest member of the offense with four years experience as a professional athlete to draw on. Without that type of background and confidence, it would be virtually impossible to explain how he could make the transition from minor league catcher to college wide receiver, and likely first-round NFL draft choice, in two seasons. At the very least, Washington will take a lot of pressure off his teammates and has the capability of carrying this team on his back.

While we're looking for leadership don't forget about the incoming freshman class which has more per capita character than any group of UT signees in recent memory. Sure they won't have the experience, but they bring a work ethic that is sure to push their teammates to greater heights.

If you're looking for a dark horse leader consider someone who has never played college football. UT linebacker Kevin Simon came to Knoxville last fall as the nation's No. 1 linebacker prospect. A knee injury in the National High School All-Star Game sidelined him last season and the road back has been long and arduous. Simon still is adjusting to playing on the rebuilt knee, but he has made remarkable strides and could be ready for a breakout redshirt freshman season. Simon is a hard worker of high character and is very well liked by his teammates. If he can approach the level of play he displayed during his career at De La Salle High School in California, Simon is a player that can become a pacesetter for the Vols when the bullets start to fly.

Leadership isn't something you can easily predict going into a season, but it is the one thing that is most clearly evident when a team crosses the finish line first.


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