Vols Begin Life Without Burnett

Calculating the loss of linebacker Kevin Burnett by simple subtraction is a little like removing a spark plug from a Ferrari and expecting the same high performance.<p>

Sure it may still get you where you want to go, but it won't get you there as fast or as proficiently.

It's also true that linebacker is a position of strength for the Vols in terms of both talent and depth, however players of Burnett's caliber are uncommon and much of Tennessee's defensive strategy was developed around his diversity and daunting presence.

There are players who can step up and take his place at the Will linebacker spot, but no one on the roster can do as many things as well as Burnett. Not only was he Tennessee's best linebacker, he was also its best pass rusher and most versatile defender. A former safety with 4.5 speed, he could move to the slot and cover a wideout if needed, line up at defensive end and pressure the passer, shut down his side of the field against the run or even move over the center and occupy the attention of three blockers with his explosive quickness from a standup position in a bubble front.

In essence, he is to Tennessee what Lawrence Taylor was to the New York Giants during their title days because he's the player the offense has to account for and can't neutralize through alignment alone.

In that respect Burnett was truly the inspiration for UT's 3-4 package, which is tougher for the offense to get a pre-snap read on and easier for the Vols to disguise. Moreover it allows Tennessee to choose it's best match-up by moving Burnett to any of the linebacker spots and blitzing him. Just the threat he poses as a potential blitzer makes the other backers more effective on blitzes. Since most offenses are built around consistency and timing this strategy tends to throw them into disarray. Plus the blitz can be as effective against the run as the pass as long as the blitzers take the proper angles and search any potential ball carrier they may encounter on the way to the quarterback.

It's also difficult to prepare for a defense that uses constant pressure because it's very easy for defensive coordinators to customize their blitz packages for the offense they are facing each week. On the other hand, offensive coordinators are aware they will see pressure, but they can only guess where it is coming from or how it will be designed.

The bottom line is that Tennessee's defense is first and foremost about speed and pressure, and no player personifies that approach as perfectly as Burnett. He entered his junior season on the verge of super stardom and was the centerpiece of a defense that seamlessly showcased his skills.

If fate is kind, he'll return next season bigger, stronger and as fast as ever. It's a given he'll have an even greater hunger than he did this preseason which followed an injury-plagued sophomore campaign.

But what impact will his absence have on Tennessee's ambitions to capture a national title this season?

Well there are adjustments the Vols can make to compensate for his loss and there's little doubt they will remain a pressure defense that deploys many, if not all, of the same packages.

The situation is compounded by the loss of Constantin Ritzmann at defensive end. It wipes out the best speed rushers the Vols had off the edge and takes away a potentially devastating defensive duo. It is further exasperated by the loss of linebacker Tony Campbell, an academic casualty who, like Burnett, was a converted safety.

"It's a devastating loss, something that can't be overcome with personnel shifts," Coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Kevin Burnett had a great work ethic. Losing him and Constantin Ritzmann has been a staggering blow to our defense. Kevin Simon went into the game and performed well. But we'll keep looking at things, and we won't let this keep us from being successful.''

Being successful will mean attempting to compensate for the loss of Burnett without discarding the 3-4 scheme he helped inspired.

''I don't think we will wholesale change anything," Fulmer said. "John (Chavis) and I have talked about it and looked at every scenario. We've been ourselves for a while and I don't see us changing a whole lot. Where we'll miss him is those special plays he's able to make ... jumping over a blocker to sack the quarterback, those kind of things. He had a really unique ability to make big plays.''

The Vols will look for help among the freshmen ranks which means the timetable for rookie linebackers Omar Gaither and Parys Harrelson will be accelerated. Tennessee may also reevaluate their rotation at defensive end to gain another source of pressure.

''Each year we've tried to adjust to personnel," said UT defensive coordinator John Chavis. "We're going to try to find someone who can give us some of the things Kevin gave us. We hope we can. If so, then we won't lose anything. If not, then we'll adjust our scheme around our personnel.

''With the losses at linebacker — he and Tony Campbell — that certainly limits you some. We're not going to throw it (3-4) away. We've got some time invested in it. We may not use it as much as we had anticipated, but we're not going to throw it away completely because there'll be some times when it'll be good for us.''

Unfortunately pass rushers are hard to find and difficult to develop. The deployment of the 3-4 was in many respects a response to the loss of tackles John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth who provided consistent pressure up the middle and created blitzing lanes for the linebackers. The situation has been further compounded by the loss of UT's best two pass rushers — Burnett and Ritzmann.

''We thought so," Chavis said when asked about the value of Ritzmann and Burnett. "Obviously, Omari Hand does an outstanding job rushing the passer and our tackles did an outstanding job in this game (Wyoming). We've got some guys inside who can rush the passer, but when you look at guys who are really dominant pass rushers most of them are going to be speed rushers from the outside. We lost two good speed rushers, but we'll find somebody that can step up and get it done."

Putting a positive spin on adverse events is the job of Tennessee's coaches. After all, if they don't believe in the Vols reserves how can they ask them to believe in themselves.

Besides there is precedence for the present predicament in which the Vols find themselves. In 1998 Jamal Lewis went down with a knee injury and many thought he took UT's title chances with him. As we all know the Vols overcame the loss of their ace with a pair of Travises (Stevens and Henry). Another factor in their recovery was the rapid development of quarterback Tee Martin who assumed more of the offensive load. Additionally, the defense took its intensity up a notch and performed like champions.

What is often forgotten about that championship season is how UT also found a way to offset the absence of middle linebacker Al Wilson, who was the Vols best defensive player and the team's heartbeat. Down the stretch, Wilson was frequently missing in action due to a pulled hamstring or playing at less than 100 percent. Likewise UT managed to absorb a series of injuries at defensive tackle and stay on track to the title. True freshman Will Overstreet became a reliable reserve that season, Sean Ellis came of age while linebackers Raynoch Thompson and Eric Westmoreland took their game up a notch.

n 1990 Tennessee lost star running back Chuck Webb in the second game of the season and went on to capture the SEC title with little known running back Tony Thompson stepping into the starting role. In 1985 the Vols overcame the injuries of starting quarterback Tony Robinson and tailback Keith Davis with fifth-year senior Daryl Dickey and walk-on tailback Jeff Powell leading Tennessee to another SEC championship and a Sugar Bowl rout of Miami.

Tennessee will need the same type of response this year. Otherwise, the lasting memory of the 2002 season will be: what could have been?


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