Witten struggles with draft decision

Vol tight end Jason Witten is trying to avoid the limelight, which is about like Mike Tyson avoiding controversy. It ain't gonna' happen. That's because Witten is the man of the moment in UT football. His decision on whether to jump to the NFL or return for his senior year will have tremendous impact on next fall's team.

Knowing the stakes are high, the junior from Elizabethton feels a lot of self-imposed pressure. The last thing he needs is added pressure from teammates, media and fans.

''I've been trying to lay low,'' Witten recently told a group of reporters. ''I talked to Donte' (Stallworth) and he said, 'Hey, I know you're stressed,' because he was in the same situation.''

Last January Stallworth opted to turn pro and bypass his senior year. Within 48 hours, he changed his mind. He had already accepted financial considerations from an agent, however, and wound up moving on to the NFL. Witten hopes to avoid that kind of gut-wrenching drama.

''I'm just trying to find out as much information as I can, see where I'm at and where they (draft experts) think I could go,'' he said. ''I think it's anywhere from (pick) 15 to 40. Basically, what I'm trying to find out is where the first tight end will go in the draft because I don't think it's always guaranteed to be a first-round pick.''

Witten originally planned to announce his decision before Tennessee's New Year's Eve Peach Bowl game against Maryland.

''I thought I was,'' he said. ''But the closer it gets, I don't think I'm going to be able to. It looks like I'm going to have to (wait).''

Witten, a 6-foot-5, 265-pounder with good speed and excellent hands, likely would be the first or second tight end taken if he makes himself available for next spring's NFL draft. Odds are, he'll be a first-round pick.

''The biggest thing is, 'Where will the first tight end go?' '' he said. ''Then you consider, 'What do I want to do?' There are a lot of opportunities out there, and you're not guaranteed to play football forever, so you might as well make the best of it.''

The comment that he is ''not guaranteed to play football forever,'' seemed to suggest Witten is looking ahead to the NFL. He admits that he was leaning to the pros recently but now says he is essentially back to Square One.

Asked if he thinks about the Peach Bowl perhaps being his final game as a Vol, Witten replied: ''You do. You think it's the last time you'll go through bowl practice, maybe. But you've got to put that in the back of your mind because I don't want to make a decision off emotion.''

Two factors working against Witten's return are: (1) The fact the Vols stumbled to an 8-4 regular-season record this year and (2) The fact he caught just five balls in the final four games. Despite the statistical dropoff he suffered at season's end, he believes pro scouts consider him the No. 1 tight end who might be available in April's draft.

''I think so,'' he said. ''They've got to go back and look at film. I don't think they look so much at the stats. If they look at the Mississippi State game, when Casey (Clausen) didn't play, that should show them a lot because I had a good game then. They're smart guys. They're not looking just to see who's got the best stats.''

Making Witten's decision a little tougher is the fact tight ends are not a high priority for most NFL clubs. Unlike quarterbacks, pass rushers and cornerbacks, quality tight ends sometimes slip through the first round because they rarely provide immediate impact. The 2002 draft was an exception to this rule, however.

''Last year was a great draft for tight ends; three went in the first round,'' Witten noted. ''But, the year before that, only one guy went in the first round. It's a tough decision. That's why I'm trying to find out where the first tight end will go in the draft.''

With the instant riches of an NFL contract at stake, some might consider Witten's decision a no-brainer ... take the money and run. But Witten seems to relish the college experience.

''You're only in college one time, and we've got it pretty good here,'' he said.

Although he conceded that he is ''a little frustrated about the season we had,'' Witten hints that there is reason for optimism regarding 2003.

''I see all of these guys in the national championships -- that'd be a great opportunity -- and I'd love to have that chance,'' he said. ''I think that plays a little bit ... just having another year of college football.''

On the downside, there is always the possibility that Witten could sustain a serious injury that could hurt his stock among pro scouts. That was the case with Vol receiver Kelley Washington, who opted to return to UT for 2002, only to suffer a concussion and a neck injury that required major surgery.

''That's going to be very important in my decision,'' Witten said. ''That (KW's injury) is going to affect him a lot. That could play a big role in my decision because you never know in this game what can happen, with insurance or not. You're not guaranteed anything if you go out and play again. You think 'I'm not going to get hurt' but the older you get the more you realize that anything can happen.''

Witten also knows that a series of nagging injuries can hinder a player's draft status. Such was the case for Vol defensive tackle John Henderson, who won the Outland Trophy as a junior but was limited by ankle problems as a senior.

''Yeah,'' Witten said. ''He dropped seven or eight picks. But he also gained a lot -- experiencing his senior year and being a captain of the team. It could've been worse for him. His was just a sprained ankle -- not anything as serious as Kelley.''

Head coach Phillip Fulmer is helping with the draft decision but Witten understands that the head man and his aides can't be totally objective.

''You've got to kind of sort it out,'' Witten said. ''They're obviously going to want what's best for me but they're going to have a selfish opinion. That's what the coaches told me, and that they'd support me whichever way it goes. I've also got to look at what he (Fulmer) says. He wants what's best for this football team, and I've got to take that with a grain of salt.''

Witten's goal was to catch 50 balls this season. With Clausen hurt much of the season and the receiver corps minus a big-play threat, Witten finished with just 34 receptions. Asked if there was anything that could've been done to get him the ball more, he paused briefly.

''I'm sure there was probably something,'' he said. ''It was a little frustrating out there, especially the last four or five games. But, with all the circumstances and the way the season was going, we really didn't have a lot of options out there. Because of double coverage and Casey hurt, we didn't want to push going across the middle. It was a little frustrating but nothing to get mad about or make a decision off of.''

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