"It's worked out well for us," Ritzmann of the colorful moniker. "We're from the same kind of neighborhood. It's the Tally-ho Connection we call it."
The fact Hand and Ritzmann found each and formed a friendship is a story in itself. Hand is from north Florida, Ritzmann is from the west section of a newly united Germany and they met in east Tennessee. Ritzmann actually enrolled at North Florida Christian School in 1998 as an 18 year-old exchange student handpicked by the NFL. That same summer, Hand departed Tallahassee after signing with Tennessee.
"I came over through the NFL exchange program," Ritzmann explained. "The NFL picked two players in Europe they thought might have potential for a career in football. I came here to try and get a scholarship."
Ritzmann didn't have to wait long for the scholarship offers to start rolling in. His breakout game came against Quincy Shanks' prep all-American offensive tackle Alex Jackson who was recruited by Tennessee, but later signed with Georgia. Ritzmann spearheaded the Eagles' defense that night with a sensational 16-tackle effort that included three sacks and three forced fumbles. Tennessee assists were on hand to watch Jackson that night but came away more impressed by Ritzmann.
North Florida went on to compile a 13-3 record and win the first of four consecutive Florida Class-AA state titles. An interesting aside: one of Ritzmann's teammates that season was an eighth-grade starter at linebacker named Ernie Sims. Currently a senior, Sims is a two-platoon star at linebacker and tailback and the No. 1 rated prospect in the country. During the Eagles title run, Tennessee got a firsthand look at what NFL scouts liked about Ritzmann stunning quickness and a nonstop motor.
The Vols offered a scholarship and found themselves in a five-team for tussle for the talented German. Soon Ritzmann was regarded as the No. 1 pass-rushing prospect in the nation and was hotly pursued by major football powers from coast to coast. Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Florida State were the five finalists for Ritzmann whose potential had risen from unknown to unlimited after he recorded a remarkable 161 tackles, 26 sacks and 17 caused fumbles in his only high school campaign. Most of Ritzmann's prior football experience was in semipro in Germany where he often played against former U. S. college players.
Just like the 1998 national title game, the battle for Ritzmann's signature would come down to Tennessee and Florida State. The hometown Seminoles were thought to have the stronger hand, but Tennessee had a Big Orange ace in the hole.
Shane and Krista Boggs served as Ritzmann^(1)s host family during his stay in Tallahassee, Fla. Fortuitously both Shane and Krista just happened to be Vol fans. Shane, who attended UT, was the JV football coach at North Florida Christian School. The Boggs didn't actively recruit Ritzmann for the Vols, but they were a balancing influence in Tallahassee during his decision-making process. They also took him along when they traveled to Knoxville to see Tennessee^(1)s dramatic overtime victory over Florida. That experience would leave a lasting impression.
"At Tennessee it was unbelievable," Ritzmann would later say. "The passion for football at Florida State was nothing like it was at Tennessee. I love to play in front of big crowds. Tennessee sells out all of its games."
The battle for Ritzmann would eventually become a one-on-one showdown between two of the game's recruiting giants Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer. We all know Fulmer won that duel, but everyone might no be aware of how the tide was turned. Fulmer took Ritzmann on a personal guided tour of UT's campus during the final day of his official visit and established a rapport that gave the Vols an edge.
Tennessee didn't have nearly as much competition for Omari Hand who was largely overlooked by the hometown Seminoles. Considered a classic tweener (too big for a linebacker and too small for a defensive end), Hand recorded 92 tackles and 12.5 sacks as a senior at Tallahassee Lincoln High School. He came to UT as a lean 6-5, 210 pounder and was promptly fitted for a red shirt. That put him in the same class as Ritzmann who played a true freshman in 1999.
When Hand added 30 pounds during his redshirt season he was turned into a defensive end which placed him in direct competition with the only other Vol from Tallahassee. Both players rose through the ranks and were the first substitutes in last season's defensive end rotation. They each nailed down a starting job during this preseason ‹ after Ritzmann sat out the spring with an injury and the Tally-ho Connection was born.
That is until Ritzmann was sidelined for the season with a torn knee ligament. Ironically, Hand was elected team captain on the same day Ritzmann was lost for the year. Now Hand becomes the old hand at defensive end while Ritzmann is forced to take the red shirt as a senior that many thought he should have had as a freshman. The year delay in his quest to make an NFL roster may actually enhance Ritzmann^(1)s chances. It will also be a boost for the Vols who were expected to lose all four starters in the defensive line.
Unfortunately, it won't do anything to help UT's pass rush this season and it puts an untimely end to the Tally-ho Connection. It also separates the kindred spirits of Ebony & Ivory that were expected to make sweet music in opposing backfields in 2002.
")I don't know where that came from," Ritzmann said the day before he was injured when asked about the handle. "Some strength coach made a joke and Coach Fulmer heard it and decided to tell the media. We thought he was just kidding. Whatever. It's funny. Omari and I are pretty good friends and I hope that translates onto the field."
Regrettably UT fans won't see Ebony & Ivory play this season as it appears fate has a different plan for their future. As it is life rarely unfolds in black and white, but in various shades of gray.
With Ritzmann out, the Vols will turn to redshirt sophomore Karlton Neal another tweener who was moved from linebacker to defensive end last season. Neal adapted quickly to his new role and was named UT's most improved defensive player of spring practice.
He'll be backed by true freshman Jonathan 'J.T.' Mapu, who has shown he can compensate for a lack of SEC-caliber strength with outstanding speed and incredible leverage. Mapu's high school coach said the Parade All-American may be the best player to ever leave the state of Hawaii, and he has done nothing since arriving on campus to invalidate the claim.
Another true freshman making a major splash is Jason Hall of Chattanooga McCallie. Hall is a late bloomer and therefore a highly underrated prospect. The light went on for Hall in the spring of 2001 and his stock has climbed steadily ever since. The fact he wasn^(1)t moved to a need position like tight end after arriving at UT is a strong indicator of just how good he^(1)s looked at defensive end. Mondre Dickerson may also be counted on more in Ritzmann's absence, but since he is playing on the left side, which is normally the offense's strong side, he may not draw many reps at right defensive end.
The Vols were probably going to move true freshman David Ligon to defensive tackle anyway, but the timetable will likely accelerate due to Ritzmann's setback. Ligon is an excellent technician and well versed in defensive line techniques. He regards the fundamentals at either position to be essentially the same and has said on several occasions he would have no problem sliding inside.
Ritzmann's injury will likely bring an end to Wesley Holmes trial at defensive tackle. The 245-pound walk-on had already made a move from linebacker to defensive end and didn't relish another transition especially given the bulk he would be giving away to 300-pound offensive guards and tackles.
The same lack of interior depth that triggered Holmes move to tackle will also likely keep senior Demetrin Veal there. Veal, a junior college transfer, came on strong in the second half of last season and figures to be a fixture at defensive tackle this year sharing time with fellow seniors Rashad Moore, Edward Kendrick and Aubrayo Franklin, True freshman LaRon Harris will also likely get some early reps as the Vols attempt to build experience for next season.
Ritzmann's injury doesn't exactly cripple the Vols on defense, but it will complicated matters especially as other injuries deplete the defensive-line ranks. Ultimately, it could lead to the much discussed 3-4 defense becoming an alignment of necessity, if not of choice.
One more note of interest: we often hear just how difficult it is to find defensive linemen. The fact the Vols signed Ritzmann and Mapu would seem to prove that point as Berlin and Honolulu are about as far apart as two cities can be separated by no less than 12 time zones.