Best of Fulmer era - centers

Tennessee once was considered to be Linebacker U. Then it was Wide Receiver U. Nowadays you could make a pretty strong case that it qualifies as Center U.

Few teams in major college football have been blessed with the quality talent at this crucial position the Vols have enjoyed during the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present). You could pencil in UT's starter as the All-SEC center most years and be accurate a good percentage of the time.

Because center is perhaps the least glamorous position on a football roster, most of Tennessee's recent centers were not particularly famous. They were highly regarded by knowledgeable writers and opposing coaches, however, which is why so many of them earned all-conference honors during their UT playing days. Pro coaches knew who they were, too. Three of the five Fulmer-era centers have gone on to distinguish themselves in the NFL.

The Vols' current center, rising junior Josh McNeil, has been starting since Game 4 of his freshman year and appears a virtual lock to continue Tennessee's recent tradition of outstanding players at the position.

Two guys who started at center during Fulmer's tenure are not included in this discussion. Four-year starter Bubba Miller (1992-95) played the position in '93 but spent the other three years at guard. David Ligon was a parttime starter at center in 2005 but played his senior season of '06 at guard.

Given the remarkably high level of production at the center position, trying to rank Tennessee's best of the Fulmer era is an imposing task. The difference between the top guy and the bottom guy on the list is so minute as to be almost imperceptible.

You want to read a ranking, however, so here goes:

1. Scott Wells (2000-03): A backup in the 2000 opener, he moved into the first-team lineup when Fred Weary was injured in the opening minutes of Game 2 with Florida. Wells finished out the contest so impressively that he went on to start the next 49 consecutive games, setting a program record that still stands. Tabbed a team captain and an All-SEC selection as a senior in '03, the 6-2, 300-pound Spring Hill native has gone on to distinguish himself as the starting center for the NFL's Green Bay Packers.

2. Trey Teague (1996-97): After protecting Peyton Manning's blind side at the high-profile left tackle position in '96, Teague unselfishly agreed to play center as a senior. The move cost him considerable recognition and NFL bonus money but helped the Vols win a conference title. Teague adapted so quickly to his new outpost that he was named All-SEC in his only college season at the position. A native of Jackson, Tenn., the 6-5, 300-pounder went on to play nine seasons in the National Football League – most of them as a starter.

3. Jeff Smith (1992-95): A four-year starter, Smith spent his first two years ('92 and '93) at guard and his last two ('93 and '94) at center. The Decatur native accomplished a rare double by earning All-SEC recognition in his second year at guard ('93) and in his second year at center ('95). The 6-3, 310-pounder went on to spend six seasons in the NFL, playing mostly guard.

4. Spencer Riley (1997-99): Like Smith, Riley moved inside for his final two college seasons after playing guard previously. Tough as a pine knot, he helped the Vols win the '98 national title despite playing much of the season with a fractured right wrist. The 6-3, 305-pounder from New Market was a team captain as a senior.

5. Brent Gibson (1996): A converted defensive tackle, Gibson spent three years backing up Bubba Miller and Jeff Smith before finally getting a chance to start as a senior. The 6-4, 275-pounder from Canton, N.C., did a solid job filling some mighty big shoes.


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