Vol Leaders Get Early Start on Big Job

Spring practice at Tennessee is usually a time to fine tune the offense, find a couple of key players and answer a pressing team issue or two, but these are unusual times for UT football which means no aspect of the program is exempt from examination.

It's the type of self-examination that must take place in light of an 8-5 record with an 18.8 average margin of defeat. Among those severe setbacks were losses to Florida, Georgia and Alabama for the first time in one season in team history and the most one-sided post season defeat ever — a 30-3 beating by Maryland in the Peach Bowl.

A Peach Bowl appearance alone would have been enough to undo many Big Orange supporters who saw their team enter the 2002 campaign as a top 5 ranked team with SEC and national championship aspirations, but throw in a thumping by the Terps on a New Year's Eve at the same venue UT lost the 2001 SEC title to LSU and you're bound to have an disgruntled fan base.

Make no mistake, the state of mind of a massive fan base drives football in Big Orange Country, and both coaches and players are aware that this has been a long winter of discontent.

This has apparently prompted Tennessee's coaching staff to take a proactive approach this off season, such as naming team captains before the beginning of spring practice as opposed to waiting until the fall, as they did last year, or until the end of spring practice which is more often the case.

There also appears to be a greater emphasis on enforcing stronger guidelines to the off-season conditioning program and an attempt to head off potential discipline problems before they become full blown catastrophes. It's difficult to project how much difference this will make, but you have to applaud the fact there is a change in standard operating procedure.

Chemistry isn't something that can be regulated anymore than leadership can be assigned, but coaches can create conditions that are conducive to the development of both, and it's encouraging to see UT's coaching staff recognizes the importance of providing those conditions.

With 20 players still recovering from surgery and injuries, others splitting time between track and football and 20 signees not scheduled to report until this summer, the Vols won't get a meaningful look at starting units working against each other, but they can begin to establish the tempo and focus needed to help reverse the trend of inconsistency that underscored last season's sharp decline.

Last season coaches seemed content to let leaders emerge from the pack. This season they are getting ahead of the situation by assigning those responsibilities early. The decision to name six captains is either an indication that there aren't two or three individuals strong enough to shoulder the load, or it is a tribute to juniors Kevin Burnett and Michael Munoz who will become the first juniors to serve as team captains at UT since 1944.

They will be joined by seniors Constantin Ritzmann, Rashad Baker, Scott Wells and Casey Clausen. That provides a representative for every unit on the team except for wide receivers where there aren't any seniors and only one established junior in Tony Brown.

The manner in which these players assume the mantle of leadership will be critical to Tennessee's effort to regain their emotional edge as a team. The development of these team captains can be closely monitored as an indicator of the Vols potential for success this spring and through the summer. Regardless of a team's talent level, there can not be consistent success without strong leadership.

"It is better to have a lion at the head of an army of sheep, than a sheep at the head of an army of lions."

–– Daniel Defoe

And of course, the tone set by the head coach is an equal part of the same leadership equation.

A chief is a man who assumes responsibility. He says. "I was beaten," he does not say, "My men were beaten."

–– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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