Subtract that talented trio and offensive line anchors Fred Weary and Reggie Coleman with leading rusher Travis Stevens and it's difficult to imagine Tennessee being as good, much less better, than it was last season when it won 11 games and came within one victory of playing for all the marbles.
And yet that's exactly what is being suggested in this story. Admittedly it requires the power of projection, but not a lot of imagination, to envision a better balanced, more mature UT football team in 2002. This is also a Tennessee team that given a little luck, an essential ingredient in any title drive, could post 13 or 14 wins.
The improvement will come from three areas: key players returning to action, established players poised for breakout seasons and dark horse players who become thoroughbreds in the heat of high-caliber competition.
Returning to Action: There are three players that fit into this category and all will play a prominent role in Tennessee's 2003 success.
Michael Munoz and Jason Respert are a pair of high school all-Americans who earned starting jobs in the offensive line before injuries forced each to the sidelines. Their return in 2002 should more than compensate for the loss of Weary and Coleman at guard and tackle.
Munoz is a prototypical specimen for weak side tackle where protecting the Casey Clausen's blind side will be one of his chief duties. Munoz played left tackle all through high school before moving to right tackle as a true freshman at Tennessee. He earned freshman all-American honors that year, but admits to never being completely comfortable with the switch. Now he's back at the tackle post he prefers and the one his father played during nine all-pro seasons and an NFL Hall of Fame career.
Munoz has had a highly successful off season where he has gained strength and stamina. Of greater significance is the fact that his knee surgery, which corrected a degenerative condition, has elevated his health beyond any point of his high school or college playing days. Additionally, during his year away from the game, Munoz has gained a new appreciation for playing football that he hasn't had before which means from a physical, mental and emotional standpoint he should be ready for his best season ever.
When Respert went down early last season he was playing, perhaps, better than any offensive lineman the Vols had. An outstanding athlete with excellent quickness Respert only needs college game experience to raise his play to new heights. He should become a three-year mainstay at right guard and might even see some action at center before joining the NFL ranks.
Linebacker Kevin Simon never made it to the football field last season after experiencing slow recovery from a knee injury he suffered in the U.S. Army National High School All Star Game after his senior season at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. Simon concluded his high school career never experiencing defeat on the field, but had his share of hardships off the field. Not long after he had knee surgery in the winter of 2001 his brother was killed in an unprovoked attack by a total stranger.
Now Simon appears to be on the road to physical and emotional recovery and ready to resume a promising gridiron career that saw him ranked as the No. 2 prospect nationally coming out of high school. Simon appears to be slated for duty at outside linebacker although he could move to the middle and might see playing time inside when UT deploys a 3-4 scheme. It will take game action for Simon to reach full speed, but when he does he has an excellent chance to fulfill the promise that he showed in high school. In fact, he was considered by UT's coaching staff as the best linebacker fit ever signed for the Vols aggressive defensive scheme.
Poised For Breakout Seasons: These players are more easy to identify and, consequently, have been discussed more frequently and written about more often. Included in this group are tight end Jason Witten, linebacker Kevin Burnett, defensive tackle Rashad Moore, safety Rashad Baker along with a trio of young tailbacks Jabari Davis, Cedric Houston and Derrick Tinsley.
All these players appear ready to assume the star mantle in 2002, especially Witten who came on strong as an offensive weapon in the second half of last season. Burnett only started two games but has the talent to become Tennessee's best linebacker in recent memory and has been designated as such by coaches Phillip Fulmer and John Chavis. Moore only needs a season of good health to fulfill his vast potential and Baker, who came in as a wide receiver, now has the experience needed for that breakthrough campaign at free safety where reads are as important as reactions.
Davis, Houston and Tinsley were high school all-Americans who got few reps last season behind the highly productive Stevens. It's easy enough to see a scenario by which all three gain significant playing time and they employ styles that should prove to be very complementary. Despite this trio's lack of production last season, the running back position will be better than it was last year where UT was forced to depend on a one-pony backfield. The versatility and depth the Vols will deploy this season will make the ground game lethal and tha's without factoring in possible contributions from true freshman Gerald Riggs Jr. who is, in all likelihood, the best pure runner on the roster.
Dark horse Contributors: This is the most difficult category to isolate players and the most fun. Who are those players that will make a rapid rise through the ranks to become regular contributors and fan favorites?
One of the chief areas of concern has been at the so-called second wide receiver position where no one has yet to established themselves as a starter opposite blooming superstar Kelley Washington. There are no shortage of candidates at this position where young receivers like C.J. Fayton, Montrell Jones, Tony Brown, Jomo Fagan, Jonathan Wade and Chris Hannon will vie with senior Leonard Scott for the starting job.
There isn't a clear cut starter from this group, but competition and the law of natural order should push one or more of these candidates to peak performances this season. On balance, Fayton may have the most athletic talent with Jones and Brown being the most accomplished receivers out of high school. Jones' claims that he was timed running a 4.35 this summer seem suspect seeing that Wade, a world class sprinter, only ran a 4.42 on grass at UT's football camp last summer and that was a camp record. However, if Jones just becomes better at getting in and out of his cuts as well as playing stronger against the jam he should be a much improved player this season.
It's interesting that so much attention has been given the second wide receiver role in UT's offense when the running back position suffers from a similar lack of production and experience, and that's considered a strength. Someone will emerge from Tennessee's receiving corps to claim the second WR job and he will probably have to fend off serious challenges after he does. This group isn't nearly as limited as many believe, especially considering the contributions that Tinsley can make.
Defensive line is another area of concern for the Vols who must replace all four starters. Moore has already been mentioned as a stalwart up front while Edward Kendrick earned a starting job in 2000 before sitting out last season. Dementrin Veal is another player who came on like gangbusters at the end of last season and has the talent to play either tackle or end.
When talking about unestablished players with solid potential Karlton Neal and Wesley Holmes appear most ready to step up and contribute this season. Both have made a successful transition from linebacker to defensive end and only need an opportunity to get into the flow of the game to exhibit their skills. Holmes, a walk-on who transferred from Ole Miss, and Neal, a highly-ranked high school star, demonstrated a capacity to pressure the passer during the spring game and will provide the Vols with quality depth at defensive end.
There are any number of true freshman that will contribute this season with tight end Aaron Kirkland, offensive guard Rob Smith, defensive end Jonathan Mapu, defensive tackle LaRon Harris and running back Gerald Riggs the most likely to earn early playing time.
A couple of redshirt freshmen that shouldn't be discounted are defensive back Shannon Benton and fullback Will Revill both of whom had good spring games.
Overall it's easy enough to see why Vol coaches are so optimistic about this season. All it takes is a little simple addition.