The list of juniors that have entered the NFL draft early from the University of Tennessee is a relatively low number, eight. TB Chuck Webb, WR Carl Pickens, QB Heath Shuler, TB Jamal Lewis, OG Cosey Coleman, S Deon Grant, WR Donte Stallworth and DT Albert Haynesworth. As I said the list is not astounding, but consider the impact it had on the previous years' team and you see how important the players could have been. I am not going to speculate on the impact Stallworth and Haynesworth would have in the 2002 season because we do not know yet what kind of performance those positions will make. Carl Pickens was, is and will always be a mystery to yours truly, so he is out. Jeffery Stewart did a main feature of Heath Shuler a short time ago and I will spare you reading what I have to say about the same information. To cut to the chase, we will just look at Chuck Webb, Jamal Lewis, Cosey Coleman and Deon Grant.
Chuck Webb was the first of the group to jump from the college ranks to the pro ranks while playing for the University of Tennessee. At the time when Webb left, it wasn't as customary as it is today to leave as an underclassman. Webb was coming off a 250-yard performance in the 1990 Cotton Bowl vs. Arkansas which earned him MVP honors for the game. Webb put up a great effort in a 31-31 tie with eventual National Champion Colorado in the Pigskin Classic. The following week the Vols met weakling Pacific in Knoxville. What was not known at the time was that game would Chuck Webb's last in an orange uniform. Webb took a hand-off to the right sideline and had a defender roll his leg over. Webb leapt up and off the field. At the time it seemed like a harmless injury. It turned out that his knee ligaments were all torn up and the injury would require season-ending surgery. Tony Thompson took the tailback job over and won the SEC rushing crown for 1990 . Chuck Webb was almost became an afterthought at that time.
After the season had concluded Webb announced his decision to enter the 1991 NFL Draft. The Green Bay Packers selected him with their third round pick. Webb never made a big impact in the pro level, but to this day Vol fans dream of what a senior season, or even just a junior year, would have been for Chuck Webb. Webb to this day holds the two top rushing performances in a game for his 294 yard output vs. Mississippi in a 32-21 Tennessee win, and his Cotton Bowl game that was mentioned earlier. Chuck Webb had several other great games in his short tenure as a Vol: 162 yards against Akron, 145 yards vs. Kentucky and his 30 carries against LSU in the 1989 season. Webb's star was burning bright when it was abruptly blown out in 1990. Webb is still talked about as being the best tailback to wear the orange even with his short career.
As I was standing at spring practice this past April, the topic of Chuck Webb was brought up by someone standing close to me. One of the UT sports information team, who shall remain nameless, said he believed Webb could have had a good opportunity to win the Heisman Trophy in 1991 or possibly even for the 1990 season if injury had passed him by. Rocky Top News editor Randy Moore still contends that Webb was the best tailback he has seen in his 20 plus years covering Tennessee football. In the 1991 season, James Little Man Stewart took the honors as the team's leading rusher after the season was complete. If you ask an average football fan around this country, they would look at us Vol fans as if we were crazy if we told them we had it kind of bad in 1991 compared to what we could have had. I spoke with a person on the phone about this topic and his response was, You Tennessee fans are never satisfied. You start a back during that season that turns out to be a pro star and you are unhappy because you lost a guy who you thought could have been a Heisman Trophy contender maybe. Maybe he was right, but as I was quick to point out to him, Webb WAS going to be a stud even if he came back at 75 percent. Bottom line, of all the players to leave early for the professional football level, Chuck hurt himself more than he did the Vols. The future could have held many things for him at Tennessee, but he opted for the safest route to being financially secure and none of us can blame him for that.
Chuck Webb wasn't the first to head out early, but he may have been an omen as to what kind of irony the future would hold.
Staying in the tailback line, Jamal Lewis would be the next to bolt for the money early. Jamal had one of the best true freshman seasons in SEC history. He took over the job midway through the 1997 season as he lined up behind the quarterback Peyton Manning and fullback Shawn Bryson. Lewis went on to tally up 1,364 yards on 232 carries as he helped the Vols to an 11-2 season and an SEC Championship. Lewis had much preseason hype going into the 1998 season and he followed up on it gong into the showdown with Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 3. On his first carry, he took a counter right and raced 67 yards for a touchdown on the Vols first offensive play. The score would give the Vols a 14-0 lead, but the game would be closer than originally thought. The final was 17-9, Tennessee. During the defensive struggle, Lewis had his knee twisted and hurt in a similar way to the way Webb would go down to injury against Pacific in 1990. Lewis played sparingly for the rest of the game, but would not suit up again in 1998. After watching the Vols win a national championship, Lewis was ready to go again in 1999 with a chance to defend the SEC and national crown. Jamal suffered through some nagging hamstring injuries all season long and appeared to be running cautiously at times. Tennessee finished with a so-so 9-3 season record. Following a hard loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in 2000, Lewis was the first of three juniors to declare of the draft. Lewis was selected fifth overall by the Baltimore Ravens and won a Super Bowl crown and offensive rookie of the year in his freshman year in the NFL. With such a great fourth year in the pros, it is human nature to wonder, could he have been that good in 2000 for the Vols? At times during the 1999 season Jamal looked like he was preparing for his professional career and games as a Vol.
Jamal was a great back. Maybe second only to Chuck Webb as the best in UT history, but his impact would have had to be next to unstoppable to beat the performance of the starting tailback in the 2000 season. Travis Henry, who came in the same recruiting class as Lewis, had waited long enough. He took over and became UT's all-time leading rusher in his senior season. So begs the question, could Lewis have made that much of a difference at a position that was the Vols strong point all season? Against Florida Henry did all he could, 175 yards on 37 carries with one touchdown, but the Vols still fell short in a 27-23 loss. My conclusion, take it for what it is worth, if that Lewis even though he was a great back, would not have changed an 8-4 season all by himself. Could be have made many all-something teams, yes. He might have given enough of an advantage for one more victory, but we will never know that to be true. Bottom line on Jamal, it would be hard to ask for anyone to perform better than Lewis' successor did in 2000.
The Vol offensive line in 1997, 1998 and 1999 held the presence of a player that would be known as one of the best in college football in only his junior year. Cosey Coleman was such an incredible lineman that UT coaches had trouble deciding where he should be penciled in to start. After many practice hours, he was ticketed as an offensive lineman. After many reps and game experience, he settled into the guard position at the start of the 1998 season. Cosey was on many watch lists for teams and awards going into the 1999 season. Coleman turned out to be an anchor on a great offensive line featuring Chad Clifton, Spencer Riley, Reggie Coleman, Fred Weary and Josh Tucker. Many Vol fans thought Cosey would return following a poor team performance in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl against Nebraska(a 31-21 loss). Cosey became the second, following Jamal Lewis and proceeding Deon Grant, of a trio Vol stars to take the money and run, by announcing his entry into the 2000 pro football draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with their second round selection in the 2000 NFL draft. Coleman saw very limited action for the Bucs as they made a made a late season run into the NFL playoffs. He was tutored by veteran offensive lineman Randall McDaniel, who had been picked up during the offseason by Tampa Bay following his great career with the Minnesota Vikings. I was living in Tampa at the time and was fortunate enough to watch a Bucs practice. McDaniel and Coleman appeared to be more than mentor and student, they seemed to be friends as well. They were walking and talking together as they entered the practice field and did the same when they left. Cosey was one of the key reserves for the Bucs in the 2001 season and showed flashes of his great talent at many times during the year. His performance now has him appearing to be a starter for new coach Jon Gruden's revamped O-line. During his career in the trenches for Tennessee, he helped the Vols to win a national championship in 1998 and two SEC crowns. Coleman was named to many all-SEC and all-America teams. he may even be one of the top five offensive linemen in UT history. That is a bold statement considering all the greats that have come through the Big Orange doors. Bottom line: My answer for Cosey will sound much like the answer for Lewis above. The 2000 Vols offensive line did an extraordinary job blocking for Vols all-time leading rusher Travis Henry. Even though they did a great job, the experience was lacking. Starters for the bulk of the season would be freshmen Scott Wells and Michael Munoz, sophomore Anthony Herrera, junior Reggie Coleman and lone senior Toby Champion. Cosey Coleman would have added depth, experience and overall talent to this offensive line in 2000. For the whole, both sides received somewhat of a raw deal. Cosey by not being drafted in the first round as he thought he would, lost a bit of financial gain. The Vols in turn did not have the experience that they might have liked in 2000. The result both sides appear to be doing just fine and dandy to this date.
The final individual is the one that I think hurt Tennessee more than any of the other other four and possibly more than the loss of the great Peyton Manning. Hold on you say. Allow me a second to explain myself. Deon Grant was going to be, barring injury in the offseason, the best college secondary athlete in the country. Grant had already been a finalist for the Jim Thorpe award for best DB in America. Grant's play in 1999 was just short of unbelievable. He picked off three passes against rattled Auburn quarterback Jeff Klein. Grant even intercepted the first pass on the first play of the game and took it into the end zone to give the Vols a 7-0 lead without having the offense touch the ball. Cornerback Dwayne Goodrich was suspended for the game for disciplinary reasons and sophomore Teddy Gaines started in his place. Following the game, Gaines could only say this, Thank God for Deon. He covered my back the entire time.
Deon brought such a big-play capability to the Vols that he was sharing time at wide receiver in the latter part of his junior year. He never made a huge difference at the wideout spot, but a defense never allowed him to go uncovered. On one particular play against Notre Dame in 1999, he was double covered by Irish defenders on a post route to the end zone and despite a pass interference call, he still came close to making a beautiful touchdown grab. Even if none of the things I said above impresses you, this stat has to. Deon Grant intercepted 12 passes over a 15 game regular season period. That, for any defensive back in any level, is good. Deon, like Cosey Coleman, saw his draft stock fall from the middle to late part of the first round, to the second round. Deon was selected with the 57th overall pick by the struggling Carolina Panthers. As he began his rookie preseason he suffered a devastating knee injury that took him out of action for nearly 18 months. This past season he played very sparingly for the Panthers and appears to be back to almost 100 percent of his playing ability. Where did the Vols fall to in the absence of Deon Grant you ask? The longest interception return during the regular season was by TRUE freshman starter Rashad Baker for 27 yards. All-SEC defender Andre Lott was forced to take over the safety position left vacant by Grant. There was a grand total of 11 interceptions by the 2000 Vol defenders. I am including two linebackers and one lineman's picks in that statistic. Deon's bottom line is this: his early departure for the NFL hurt him financially and his ability to rise up and be a key NFL performer for the Panthers. Tennessee's secondary suffered tremendously over the next two seasons and just now appear to have their secondary back in tip-top shape for a national championship run in 2002. Deon's decision hurt all involved and if he could go back and change the past, he would probably do so in a heartbeat.
There is my opinion. Hope you enjoyed IT.