Witten should have big day

Since the Peach Bowl may be junior tight end Jason Witten's final game as a Vol, don't be surprised if he goes out with a bang.

Witten had a career day in last year's bowl game -- catching six passes for 125 yards as Tennessee routed Michigan 45-17 in the Citrus Bowl. He might register another career day when the Big Orange faces Maryland this New Year's eve in Atlanta.

For one thing, Vol quarterback Casey Clausen is healthy again after spending the last half of 2002 nursing an assortment of injuries. That improves Witten's chances of catching some balls.

''With Casey not being limited, that can open up our passing game a lot,'' Witten said. ''That'll open up the running game, too. It's tough to play when they know you're going to run every time. That'll take a little pressure off the offensive line and put it in Casey's hands.''

Another factor working in Witten's favor is the emergence of freshman Jonathan Wade as a deep threat. With Wade spreading the field a bit, that will open up the middle for Witten -- much as Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington opened up the middle against Michigan last year.

''Yeah, I wish I could have that this year,'' Witten said. ''Man, I was a lucky guy then. Things change, I guess. Hopefully, we can get some of those guys back again ... like Stallworth. Maybe guys can develop into those guys. They're learning and coming along but you don't get a Kelley Washington and a Donte' Stallworth every year.''

Because the Vols didn't have a Stallworth-caliber wideout this fall, Witten was double-teamed for much of the season. That was flattering but frustrating.

''I've had to work extremely hard to get open just because every catch I get I'm lucky to get it because of the way I'm covered,'' he said. ''It's definitely not going to be like that in the NFL -- two guys on you -- but that's what it's going to be like with one guy on you in that league.''

Ah, yes ... the NFL. Witten is pondering a jump to the pros rather than a return for his senior season at UT. The decision is weighing heavily on his mind, although he's trying hard to focus all of his energy on the Peach Bowl. It's a big game that the Vols really need to win, he says.

''I think that's going to be really important,'' he said. ''It's about pride. We're a good football team, I don't care what anybody says. If we could beat a (Maryland) team that's 10-3, that'd be special.''


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