Perhaps the 8-5 record posted by Tennessee's football team last season was no fluke. Perhaps the…
Early Season Preview: The Tennessee Vols
If there was a theme in the University of Tennessee's spring football practice, it was "Retribution for 2002". After beginning the 2002 season ranked in the pre-season top 5 and being picked as a lock for a BCS Bowl game, the Vols proceeded to give Coach Phil Fulmer his first five season loss during his 11 year tenure as head coach in Knoxville. The low-point of the 2002 season was an embarrassing 30-3 humiliation at the hands of Maryland in the season ending Peach Bowl.
To put the 2002 season in perspective, the Vols lost as many games as they did from 1995-1998. Many sportswriters, looking at the fact that the Vols only return three starters from last year's defense, have predicted the complete downfall of the Vols in the 2003 season. There is no doubt that some critical components of the 2002 team have left. But, there is also quality returning depth including a number of players who were scheduled to start last season before seeing their efforts cut short by injury.
Reports out of Knoxville indicate that the Senior Vols have committed themselves to making their final year at UT one to remember. Do they have the horses to do it? Read on and find out.
Like him or not, Phillip Fulmer has established himself as one of the most successful coaches in Southeastern Conference history. His .805 winning percentage over 11 season speaks for itself. Fulmer is a tireless and relentless recruiter who spent his time as an Assistant at UT before being named head coach after Johnny Majors was fired.
One of the reasons that Fulmer has been successful is the continuity that he has established with his top assistants. Randy Sanders has been Fulmer's offensive coordinator for four seasons and John Chavous is now entering his ninth year as the Vols defensive coordinator.
The Vols have slipped somewhat since winning the Mythical National Championship in 1998. From 1995-1998, the Vols were 45-5. In the four years since then, the Vols have been much more mortal posting a 36-14 record with no SEC titles. They are still a very good football team. However, the talent gap between the Volunteers and the rest of the league has closed. Within the East, Georgia and Florida may have passed the Vols while USC appears to be gaining ground.
Volunteer Offense versus Gamecock Defense
The Vols return nine offensive starters from a unit that averaged 24 points and 353 yards of total offense per game. However, there are some critical elements from that team that are missing.
In 2002 , Quarterback Casey Clausen (6'4" 225 Sr) had a disappointing season by his own standards. Injuries plagued Clausen as he threw for only 2,290 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 11:7 touchdown to interception ratio was the worst of his collegiate career. In comparison, Clausen threw for 3,362 yards as a sophomore with a 25:9 touchdown to interception ratio. If the Vols had an Achilles heel last year, it was their failure to develop a viable back up to the very talented Clausen. As a result, Clausen played much of the 2002 season with injuries which limited both his mobility and ability throw deep down the field.
The Tennessee depth chart lists sophomore James Banks (6'3" 200) of Indianapolis as the back up. Some question whether Banks has the size and the stamina at only 200 pounds to withstand the beating of Tennessee's very tough schedule. Bank's is a gifted quarterback who has the ability to both run and pass the ball well as was evidenced in the limited action that he saw as a true freshman. If Clausen goes down, the Vols may end up going to transfer senior CJ Leake (6'4" 225), who was recruited by USC both as a high school senior and a transfer, to fill the void and give Banks, the possible quarterback of the future, another year to fill out.
The greatest strength offensively for the Vols is the stable of thoroughbred tailbacks that comprise its depth chart at the position. The starting job clearly belongs to Cederic Houston (6'0" 215 Jr) who averaged 5.1 yards per carry in eight games in 2002. Houston cemented the starting job with a very solid spring. In addition to being a solidly built tailback, Houston is blessed with 4.36 speed. Houston will be backed up by Jabari Davis (6'0" 225 Jr) who averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season. Davis has undergone an off-season workout regamine to drop a few pounds that will hopefully give him the edge in head to head competition with Houston. The third spot on the depth chart will be held down by Gerald Riggs, Jr (6'0" 220 So). Riggs, is of course, the son of former Atlanta Falcons running back Gerald Riggs Sr. In 2002, Riggs showed flashes of brilliance. However, he also displayed a propensity for dropping the football. If Riggs wants to earn the number one or two spot on this football team, he will have to overcome the confidence factors which presently plague his game.
In 2002, the Vols offensive line was susceptible to injury and gave up 41 quarterback sacks as a result of a constantly changing rotation of personnel. In 2003, only one player, Will Ofenheusle, is gone from last year's three deep.
Center Scott Wells (6'2" 300 SR) is a captain and a three year starter coming into the 2003 season. He has started a total of 36 games in his first three years at Tennessee including 13 in each of the past two seasons. When all is said and done, Wells will be one of the few players to have started for four consecutive years in the modern UT era. Wells is the most senior member of the Vols line and has the most experience of any of the returnees. He is clearly a body that would be hard to replace if lost to injury in 2003. Well is backed up by Chuck Prugh (6'3" 310 Sr).
Subsequent to spring practice, the left guard position is up in the air after an impressive performance by Anthony Herrera (6'4" 305 Sr) who started seven games at RT in 2002. In the fall, Herrera's primary competition will be Jason Respert (6'3" 305 Jr) who started six games before being injured in 2002. Respert's injury kept him out of spring practice. Depending upon how well Respert rehabilitates, the battle for the starting position could be settled after the season begins.
At one time, it was thought that Right Guard Chavis Smith (6'3" 300 Sr) was a lock to earn the first team spot at his position where he started six games in 2002. However, Rob Smith (6'5" 308 So) made great progress both in 2002 as a true freshman and in the spring of 2003. No matter which player starts, both will see plenty of playing time next year as the Vol guards work to reduce the high number of sacks that they gave up in 2002.
The promotion of Smith to the second team at right guard allows the Vols to move former second team right guard Cody Douglas (6'3" 315 So) to right tackle where there is a serious need to develop a backup for Sean Young (6'7" 310 Sr). Young appears to have drawn the challenge of replacing former three year starter Will Ofenheusle who started 13 games in 2002. Young started six games at right guard in 2002. Young has been considered a bit of an underachiever at UT after the Vols won a heated battle over Georgia for his services If Young falters, true freshman and former USC recruit Steven Jones (6'4" 291) of Brentwood, who had an impressive spring after enrolling early may have the opportunity to earn substantial playing time as the Vols look to a future rotation at the position of Douglas and Jones.
The star of the offensive line is left tackle Michael Munoz (6'6" 305 Jr) who is now two years removed from a serious knee surgery. Munoz has the ability to dominate as a run blocker just as he did leading a 17 play scoring drive that put the Gamecocks away in Williams Brice last year. This ability makes him both an All SEC and All American Candidate as a junior.
In 2002, Tight End Jason Witten led the Vols in receiving yards and was tied for both number of catches (39) and number of touchdown catches (5) among Tennessee's receivers. Replacing Witten and his offensive contribution is a critical key for the Vols in 2003. At the conclusion of spring practice, the first spot on the depth chart was occupied Victor McClure (6'4" 290 Jr), a mammoth one time offensive guard who was drafted for the position due to his ability to serve in double tight end formations as a blocker. The Vols continue to look for a more athletic solution at the tight end position. For now, the candidates are Aaron Kirkland (6'4"250 So), a converted linebacker who has accrued most of his playing time on special teams to this point and walk on Jake Finlayson (6'5" 260 So).
The Vols staff must find a solution to replacing Witten's reception and scoring production in 2003. Witten's pass catching abilities served as a great check and balance against opposing linebackers who attempted to cheat the run against Tennessee's very capable stable of tailbacks.
If there is a weakness for the Vols among the members of its offensive line two deep, it is clearly the lack of game experience among the right tackles on its depth chart and the lack of experience among the starters, in general, at their starting positions (Munoz excepted). Carolina's defensive four man front may force the Vols to revert to using the tight end exclusively as a blocker. While that's not good for the Gamecocks from a perspective of being able to pressure the quarterback., it is good in that it eliminates the tight end as a receiver which was a critical part of the Vols offense last season.
Despite the fact that the Vols have developed a reputation for developing NFL quality wide receivers, only one receiver that caught more than 30 balls, Tony Brown (6'2" 200 Jr), returns this season. Among the returnees, the bulk of the receiving duties will fall to Brown, slotback/wide receiver Derrick Tinsley (6'0 195 Jr) and CJ Fayton (6'2" 190 So).
In the spring game, converted safety Mark Jones (5'9" 185 Sr) distinguished himself with four catches for 152 yards. In fairness, Jones compiled these numbers against a secondary consisting entirely of walk-ons. However, this past February the Vols signed three of the country's top ten high school wide receivers in Robert Meacham (6'3" 200), Jayson Swayin (6'3" 205) and Brett Smith (6'3" 175). Any of the three could potentially contribute for the Vols as true freshmen.
The key for this Vol offense is to find a replacement for the contribution made by Witten in 2002. That replacement may well come in the development of running back turned wide receiver Derrick Tinsley's contribution as a Derek Abney type hybrid who will both run with and catch the ball. While Tinsley is not particularly effective at hitting the hole out of a traditional tailback formation, he is a very elusive runner in the open field.
If Clausen stays healthy, this Tennessee team has the potential to be very good. However, they lack the experienced depth to overcome a rash of injuries that they were subjected to even more so than last year.
Carolina's defensive line will match up fairly well with Tennessee's offensive line. However, if Tennessee decides to run behind the power run blocking of Munoz, The weakside Carolina linebacker (Garrison or Lawrence) will have to step up to help defend against the run.
In the Carolina Secondary, cornerbacks Eiland and Robinson match up nicely with projected starters Tony Brown and Mark Jones. In the event that the vaunted Vol freshman trio of receivers get into the game, both Robert Meacham and Jayson Swain could present size and speed matchup problems for the Gamecock corners.
Carolina Offense vs. Tennessee Defense
The Vols return only three starters from their 2003 team and must replace all four starting defensive linemen from last year's team. Wait! Don't mark this one in the "W" column just yet. You see, the Vols experienced a rash of pre-season injuries that kept some of their best defensive players from starting who would have otherwise started from doing so. Many of those injured players will now hold down the #1 spot on the 2003 depth chart.
At right tackle, Mondre Dickerson (6'5" 290 JUCO Sr) will finally get the chance to put his entire package of impressive tools on the table for all to see. The former #4 JUCO defensive lineman in the nation started two games in 2002 and had 16 tackles and two sacks to his credit when the season ended. Dickerson is physically imposing with a 505 lb bench. He is an incredibly enthusiastic player who may see his name on the back of an NFL jersey with an solid 2003 campaign. It's completely fair to draw comparisons between Dickerson and Gamecock Defensive Tackle Randy Jackson as each arrived on campus to much fanfare. However, each has yet to achieve his full potential at the Division 1 level.
The other tackle position is manned by mammoth Sophomore Greg Jones (6'6" 300).who had ten tackles as a backup in 2002. Thereafter, the Vols depth chart shows two true freshmen, Matt McGlothlin (6'0" 280) and Justin Harrell (6'4" 300) in each of the number 2 spots. In a case of poetic justice, Terriea Smalls, a South Carolina native who shunned the in state schools for UT then fabricated a story about threats being made against his family as a result of his choice is buried deep on the depth chart on the fourth team.
The Right End position will be manned by the very capable Constatin Ritzman (6'4" 265 Sr.). Ritzman suffered an ACL tear in the 2002 pre-season which kept him out of the lineup the entire year last year. Prior to the injury, Ritzman possessed a great combination of size and speed that made him a solid threat as a rush end. Only time will tell how well he has recovered from a very serious knee injury.
When Ritzman was injured in 2002, Tennessee was forced to move his backup, Karlton Neal (6'4" 255 Jr) to the starting positon opposite Omari Hand who started 13 games as a senior. Neal will now move to the other side of the line where he will start in the place of Hand who has expended his eligibility.
The lack of quality experienced backups on the defensive line is even more critical here than it is on the offensive line as three of the five backups on the depth chart are freshmen.
While the Vols must replace two of the four starters from last season at linebacker, injuries forced them to give the returning members of the depth chart lots of snaps in 2002 as second and third teamers. Both Kevin Burnett (6'3" 235 Jr) and Kevin Simon (5'11" 225 Sr) would have started all of 2002 except for early season injuries. As healthy returnees, both Burnett and Simon give the Vols a good starting base at linebacker.
The weakside linebacker spot will be held down by Burnett. Burnett is a serious blitz threat due to 4.45 speed. Burnett had really begun to come into his own in the 2001 season recording 11 tackles against Notre Dame. His injury caused him to miss the 2002 season in its entirety. Simon missed nearly all of the 2002 season and the spring with injuries. As a result, he is listed second on the depth chart behind Jason Mitchell (6'1" 220 Sr) who started four games as a true freshman recording 14 tackles including four for loss. By the end of fall drills, our expectation is that Simon will have reclaimed the starting spot
Robert Peace (6'3" 235 Sr), who also missed a portion of 2002 as well as spring practice with a nagging foot injury, will man the middle linebacker position.
Outside of Mitchell, the remaining linebackers on the depth chart have good size and speed. Several are versatile enough to play either inside or outside. Those backups will include Marvin Mitchell (6'3" 230 SO), Daniel Brooks (6'3" 235 FR), Omar Gaither (6'2" 215 RFr) and Ovince Saint Preux (6'3" 200 So).
In the defensive backfield, the Vols line up two corners who have world class speed. They must replace first team All-SEC CB/SS Julian Battle who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. Also gone is CB Willie Miles who started 10 games in 2002.
Jabari Greer (5'10" 175 Sr) will line up at right corner . He possesses 4.35 speed. Greer started 13 games in 2001 and 8 games in 2002. He is an incredibly quick defender who broke up 14 passes in a defensive backfield that suffered its fair share of breakdowns in 2002. On the opposite corner, a battle is brewing between Jason Allen (6'2" 200 So) and Antwan Stewart (6'0" 180 RFr). Allen's 4.32 40 time made it seem as though he was the heir apparent to the departed Julian Battle. However, in the spring, while Greer ran track, Stewart may have stolen the show with his very aggressive and effective play at the position.
In any case of who starts and who backs up, the Vols have a three man rotation at corner that is effective as any in the SEC in terms of speed and athleticism.
At the safeties, the Vols return first team All-SEC free safety Rashad Baker (5'11 185 Sr), a converted wide receiver. Baker led the Volunteers with five interceptions as well as seven broken up passes in 2002. Strong safety Gibril Wilson (6'1" 190 JUCO Sr) also returns where he had 86 tackles and five broken up passes in 2002.
When you look at the depth and athleticism that the Vols return in r=the defensive backfield, its obvious that they are not a team that you're going to throw a lot of homerun balls on. They are, however, a team that you can run a very successful ball control two minute drill type offense on as the Georgia Bulldogs proved in their 18-13 victory over the Vols at Athens last year.
Over the course of the past two season, the Gamecocks have employed an offense against the Vols that attempts to stay close, then goes for the last score of the game. In each case, it has been an unsuccessful strategy due to turnovers and penalties. This year, the early scheduling of the game and the new level of talent that the ‘Cocks bring to the game, may just give them the opportunity that they are looking for to play a less seasoned Tennessee team than they have traditionally played in the last third of the schedule since joining the SEC.
This is the youngest team that Fulmer has coached at Tennessee since 1999, the year after the Vols won the National Championship. That team struggled early, then jelled late in the season to before returning to the Fiesta Bowl as a very good football team. This year, the game between the Gamecocks and the Vols falls in the first third of the season right between high profile games for the Vols with Florida and SEC West favorite Auburn. The outcome against a Florida team, which took tremendous hits due to graduation, may leave the Vols a bit giddy entering their showdown with the Gamecocks at Neyland.
Since the 2000 season, the Gamecock staff has put together three very solid game plans against the Vols only to see all three come up short on the scoreboard, Unfortunately, due to the quality of USC's early opponents, Cosh will not have the luxury of leaving his new four man front under wraps for the first four games. On the other hand, the quality of the defenses that we play early may allow Skip Holtz to hold back a secret weapon that the Vols will be unprepared for. The question is, will that be enough to take the Gamecocks to the last score of the 2003 game?
Keys to a Win
1. Carolina has to be able to establish a solid first and second down offense against the Vols. There is too much talent in the defensive backfield for the Gamecocks to think that they can come out firing on the Volunteers. This game is all about strategy and looking for opportunities in a ball control offense to put three scores on the board over the course of four quarters.
2. The Gamecocks have to be on guard for the new first and second down offense of the Vols. Jason Witten is gone and the Vols will be looking for a threat that can consistently deliver 5-7 yards on first or second down. Will it be Derrick Tinsley or Mark Jones in the slot? Quite possibly.
3. Don't try to take the crowd out of the Game. Getting in a slinging match with the Vols is a losing proposition. It may make for a successful first quarter followed by a big loss.
4. Take advantage of a lack of second team depth at a number of positions including offensive line, defensive line and quarterback. If Casey Clausen goes down, the Vols have big problems.
5. Control the 1-2 rush punch of DE Constatin Ritzman and LB Kevin Burnett. They have the ability to inflict serious damage in the Carolina offensive backfield.
6. Michael Munoz cannot dominate the Carolina defensive line in Neyland the same way that he did in the fourth quarter at Williams Brice last year.
Prove me wrong, Lou.
The Athlons' - GamecockNation.com Early Take
Tennessee players are the first to admit that leadership and discipline were missing ingredients from last year's team. A deluge of injuries compounded the problem. The 8–5 campaign of 2002 was Tennessee's worst since 1988, the Vols lost to Alabama for the first time since 1994 and the 30–3 loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl has left a foul aftertaste and now coach Phillip Fulmer needs to replace six of his starting defensive front seven, including the team's top two tacklers. End Constantin Ritzmann and linebacker Kevin Burnett were projected starters who spent all or most of last season on the shelf and are back to bolster the defensive front. Free safety Rashad Baker returns after picking off five enemy aerials in '02.
Quarterback Casey Clausen played through injuries and still completed 62.6 percent of his passes. But the 2003 Volunteers should stick mostly to the ground, with tailbacks Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis and Gerald Riggs pounding the ball inside. Four returning starters in the offensive line will pave the way.
Casualty count: Nineteen UT starters missed a total of 71 games due to injury in 2002.
Lowest high: Cedric Houston's 779 rushing yards in 2002 was the Vols' lowest team-leading total in 14 years.
Unfamiliar ground: Tennessee finished 85th nationally in total offense last season.
Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense, punter
2002 results: 8–5 (5–3 SEC)
Bowl Game: Lost to Maryland 30-3 in Peach Bowl
A. 30 Fresno State
S. 6 Marshall
S. 20 at Florida
S. 27 South Carolina
O. 4 at Auburn
O. 11 Georgia
O. 25 at Alabama
N. 1 Duke
N. 8 at Miami
N. 15 Mississippi State
N. 22 Vanderbilt
N. 29 at Kentucky
Schedule Analysis: Fresno State will not be a pushover in the opener, especially considering Tennessee is breaking in a fairly new defense against a team that returns nine starters on offense and has dangerous athletes at wide receiver. The Sept. 20 game at Florida will be its usual ultra-challenge, and road games at Auburn and Miami are also beasts, and a road trip to Tuscaloosa will not be fun. Georgia comes to Knoxville this year, and the Bulldogs are starting to have the Vols' number with two straight wins. So we see five significant challenges as the Vols try to regain their Top 10 status. Tennessee will have to win three of those to accomplish that goal.
Final Word: Defensively, the Vols will be tough if Burnett and Ritzmann return to form and they can find one more corner. Offensively, the concern is obviously at wide receiver, where Clausen truly does not have a No. 1 option at this point. The running game should be solid and Clausen will look to have a break-out year at quarterback. With the schedule being as difficult as it is, the Vols may have a better team than last year but not have the record to show it.
The South Carolina Take: They have to believe! Lou Holtz's Gamecocks have played the Vols head-to-head for four consecutive seasons. Two of those games were very very winnable - both the 2000 and 2001 contests were so close that they could have gone either way but not for mental breakdowns where the Gamecocks lost confidence in their ability to get-over the Vol hump.
Kelly Washington was a distraction for the Vols last year and combined with the injuries, Tennessee was a vulnerable football team. 2002 was the perfect season for USC to finally get their licks in on UT but the Gamecocks failed to capitalize at home. This season the task will be much tougher with SC having to go to Neyland to try to break the winning streak Tennessee currently holds over the Gamecock heads. A winning streak used in the recruiting wars on a regular basis.
The Volunteers' Achilles' heel if you will this season, is their lack of depth at quarterback. If Casey Clausen goes down they are in trouble. To offset this expect Phil Fulmer to utilize their running game more in an effort to keep Clausen out of harm's way as much as possible.
South Carolina's strategy will have to be to first of all convince themselves that they are capable of winning this football game. Next they will have to execute a defensive gameplan that limits Tennessee's ground attack and forces Clausen to go to the air. This is where it gets tricky - no fun for 'some' faint-of-heart Gamecock faithful.
Casey Clausen is deadly throwing the deep ball. But he needs ample time to find his receivers and deliver ... 3 to 5 seconds. If the Gamecock defense is able to limit the UT rushing game, force Clausen to the air attack, and then bring enough pressure so as to hinder Clausen's efforts and prevent the homerun long ball .... then the Gamecocks have a chance. A very good chance. Because one homerun ball might be enough on the road to seriously damage any confidence USC would bring into the game - the Gamecocks will be walking a tightrope gambling on their ability to get to the Vol signal caller.
Play Sound Offense: Conversely the Gamecock offense has to 'think ball-control'. They will have to pick up the tough yards on the ground and not depend upon their passing game against a very good Tennessee secondary and sound pass rush. In other words South Carolina needs to control the clock from bell to bell, limit turnovers especially on long drives, and they must not allow themselves any lapses in judgement. No stupid mistakes. The Gamecocks need to never put themselves in a position to have to play catch-up against Tennessee in Neyland. Tennessee's defensive line is relatively inexperienced and if there has ever been a season where the Gamecock offensive line should have the advantage over the UT defensive line - this is it.
Favorable Match-Ups: Yet it all comes back to defense for the Gamecocks. South Carolina has the defensive line studs and linebacker hosses to make life uncomfortable for the Vols. UT faithful are going to be shocked at just what kind of big physical team Lou Holtz has built and is bringing to Neyland this season. The Gamecock trenchmen may be young but they are very talented and promisingly deep. Five Garnet & Black defensive ends, George Gause (Jr 6-5 270), Moe Thompson (So 6-4 280), Jason Capers (Jr 6-5 265) and Charles Silas (Jr 6-6 270), and Fran Person (RSo 6-6 270) missions' will be to GET-TO Clausen and knock him out of there if at all possible. Eight defensive tackles, Darrell Shropshire (Jr 6-3 303), Preston Thorne (Jr 6-1 313), Freddy Saint Preux (Jr 6-5 305), Brandon Schweitzer (RFr 6-3 290), Randy Jackson (Sr 6-4 299), Eric Stroman (So 6-4 300), Chris Tucker (Jr 6-4 305) and Stanley Doughty (Fr 6-3 330) will be out to stuff the Vol run up the middle. And seven big fast physical Gamecock linebackers, Ricardo Hurley (So 6-3 233) , Lance Laury (So 6-3 231), Marcus Lawrence (Jr 6-3 236), Jeremiah Garrison (Sr 6-1 233), DeAdrian Coley (Jr 6-4 240), Rod Thomas (Sr 6-1 245) and especially Darel Slay (Sr 6-4 260) will be blitzing all afternoon.
If they get to Clausen, and if UT is forced to go to their young back-up signal caller 'Banks' ... then SC wins the battle from that point forward. A lot will depend upon USC's secondary and whether or not the coaches feel comfortable playing man coverage, enough so as to allow at least a part-time use of a five man front on defense. The five man front is an alignment that could conceivably shut down the UT rushing game and allow that extra man to blitz, especially when throwing in another one of our big safeties, when Clausen finds himself in a passing situation be it on second or third and long.
Scheduling: The Gamecocks get two breaks in 2003 that they have not had the luxury of experiencing, when facing Tennessee, prior to this season. The first is that they travel to Knoxville earlier than normal this season. Tennessee traditionally takes a couple of months to really get on a roll. Secondly, the Gamecocks will face the Vols after having played UAB, while UT will be coming off a tough road game at Florida and a week before they have to travel to Auburn then Georgia then Alabama.
The Bottom Line: Getting pressure on Clausen, stuffing the UT running game, not allowing the homerun ball, and controlling the clock on the SC offensive side of the ball ... those are the keys to winning in Knoxville this season for the Gamecocks.
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