As Stephens, a 5-8, 190-pound coiled muscle, began to show signs of fatigue during the late stages of the season, the talented trio of rookie runners began to vie in earnest for playing time and all three saw some significant service. Houston scored on a touchdown run against Vanderbilt in game 10, and the next week Davis pounded the ball into the end zone on three straight carries in the Vols upset victory over Florida. Tinsley also earned playing time and was a standout on special teams.
That set the stage for this fall's battle of the tailbacks and spring practice provided a preview of what Big Orange fans have to look forward to in the 2002 campaign. Davis aka "J-Train" aka "Baby Earl" has proved as good as his memorable monikers, running with a steam-rolling style the 235-pounder has flattened would-be tacklers and dashed by dazed defenders with regularity.
Tackling Tinsley is like trying to catch hot mercury on a formica top. The cat quick Tin Man can get to the outside in a flash, stop on a dime and change directions in an instant. Plus, unlike his Wizard of Oz counterpart, Tinsley has a ton of heart.
Houston combines, size, strength and speed in an explosive straight-line style that leaves defenders either grasping for air or collecting their senses after crossing his path and testing the laws of inertia.
Joining them is redshirt freshman teammate Keldrick Williams, a 5-9, 200-pound tailback out Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Ala., who has displayed some of the same qualities and skills that made Stephens a success. Junior Troy Fleming will get reps at both fullback and in single-back sets, and may be the best all-around talent the Vols have in the backfield when you factor in his game experience.
The Vols added another high school all-American in Gerald Riggs this fall who was ranked the nation's No. 2 running back prospect last season. The son of former NFL All-Pro tailback Gerald Riggs Sr., Junior could well be the best pure running back on UT's campus.
With this cache of talent you'd think all Tennessee fans would be rejoicing at their good fortune, but alas there are some that can't enjoy vast wealth worrying about taxes. Since I'm not going to rid these people of their disillusions, I, instead, will try to fuel the majority's imagination by pointing out a play book of possibilities with the personnel at UT's disposal.
From past seasons, when the Vols have had more than two good backs, they've found effective ways of getting all meaningful playing time. The case of James "Little Man" Stewart, Aaron Hayden and Charlie Garner is a great example. All three ended up among UT's top ten all-time rushers and all three went on to NFL careers. Stewart is still a starter after eight years in the league and Garner has put together a couple of 1,000-yard seasons in the Bay area for the 49ers and Raiders.
Then there's the more recent case of Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens, who all had turns as starters and all finished on Tennessee's top ten all-time rushing list led by Henry at No. 1 and Lewis at No. 4. Both Henry and Lewis landed starting gigs in the NFL, and Stephens may be ready to join them as a feature back with Tampa Bay this fall. By the way the fourth running back in that same Class of OE97 was Dominique Stevenson. He ended up moving to defense and starting three seasons at middle linebacker before being taken in the NFL Draft last spring. That proves if you can play Phillip Fulmer will find a place for you.
From all appearances Davis and Houston will share the bulk of the tailback duties this fall with Tinsley providing that change-of-pace runner, that's difficult for a defense to adjust to after bracing for bone-jarring collisions with Tennessee's big backs.
Depending on injuries and his development, Riggs could end up in the mix by midseason or he could redshirt and be two years behind Davis, Tinsley and Houston. Since a pro future appears likely for Riggs, the Vols would be well advised to try and get him playing time in 2002.
There are numerous ways to use these players in combination, such as: Tinsley at tailback behind Davis at fullback, or a power set with Houston behind Davis. With Davis and Houston at fullback and tailback, respectively, the Vols could put Tinsley in the slot, fake a power dive and toss to Tinsley on the reverse.
One of the most intriguing possibilities is for the Vols to break the huddle with Kelley Washington operating the wishbone at quarterback, an offense he ran in high school. Davis would line up at fullback with Houston and Tinsley at the halfbacks. Split wide would be sprinters Leonard Scott and Jonathan Wade both of whom would demand help from the safeties, particularly with a rifle-armed Washington at the controls. This would stretch the defense both vertically and laterally and place six Vols on the field simultaneously who can all run a 4.5 or faster time in the 40. If you substitute Riggs for Tinsley you suddenly have a backfield that is nearly as fast but averages 225 pounds per man. That would be particularly effective in short yardage situations because it forces the defense to play assignment football, reduces the number of run blitzes it could utilize and enables the Vols to isolate size and speed advantages.
In addition to running the standard triple option, there are a few twists the Vols could throw into the mix with either Scott or Wade running reverses against the flow of option. Another ploy the Vols could use is to run the option out of the I-formation with Davis and Houston, or Davis and Tinsley at the fullback and tailback respectively. Scott and Wade would still split out wide to back the safeties off the line of scrimmage, while tight end Jason Witten could line up at tight end opposite the play side. At the snap Washington would fake the dive to Davis forcing the middle linebacker to close. He would then run the option with Houston or Tinsley trailing as the pitch man. At the snap Witten could drag underneath and be in position to take a pitch forward from Washington who would also have the option of pitching to the trail back or keeping. Although it sounds a little complex it's really pretty simple and the blocking assignments for the O-linemen would essentially be the same. (And remember the pitch to Witten is a forward pass and not a risky play.)
If you wanted an innovative approach around the goal line: come out in an inverted wishbone with Houston and Davis at the up backs and Tinsley or Riggs set at the deep back between the two. There are a lot of ways of attacking a defense in this formation particularly with traps, toss sweeps, power sweeps, counters and the lead option series to either side.
In some ways you can't help but to pity UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. With all that talent on hand his main objective has to be getting everybody lined up properly and the base offense down pat. He can't plot the type of plans that fans and analysts can as most of his time has to be devoted to teaching and getting everyone on the same page. However there's little doubt that there are quiet times in which he let's his imagination run wild with double reverses, double-reserve passes, double passes, an assortment of screens, an array of options and myriad of misdirection plays.
Sure the trickery is not the type of thing upon which you would base an offense, but preparing for a variety of such contingencies would be a nightmare for opposing coaches and a blast for the Vols and their fans.
Kind of makes you wonder just how dangerous Tennessee would be if Donte Stallworth had elected to stick around.
We can only imagine.