College football countdown: No. 19 Tennessee

Wednesday, July 19th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Vols' talent pool needs replenishing

When the last NFL draft was complete, Tennessee came out looking rosy. The Volunteers had nine players chosen by pro teams, more than any other program in the country.

So how do you explain their less-than-glamorous 9-3 record from a year ago? That mark did little to back up the 1998 national title, even though by draft standards, Tennessee arguably had more talent than any other college.

Coach Phillip Fulmer revealed the answer to this in spring practice: Selfishness. He changed the team's motto to, "I believe in you."

Just how much of a difference that will make will be determined early in the season. Tennessee faces its archrival, Florida, on Sept. 16 in the second game of the year. That game normally goes a long way in determining the victor of the Southeastern Conference and has all sorts of national championship implications.

Getting by the Gators is pivotal for Tennessee, which also has Georgia and Alabama in the first half of the season. But before the Vols can turn their attention to hosting Florida, they have plenty of situations to solve internally.

For starters, Tennessee doesn't have a clear-cut quarterback. The same program that produced Peyton Manning, followed by Tee Martin, is now searching for someone to follow in their steps.

As it stands, sophomore Joey Mathews is the most experienced of the inexperienced group. He threw seven passes last year. However, he showed the ability to scramble in the spring and has a good command of the offense.

Perhaps more importantly, Mathews, from a small town just 30 minutes down the road from Knoxville, is welcoming the challenge, rather than cowering from it.

"I'm not nervous at all," Mathews said. "I am anxious, though. It's a challenge, and it makes me feel good to be able to say that I'm a Tennessee quarterback. I did get some experience last year. To get ready, I'm just preparing harder and working hard so that I'll be ready to compete."

One thing that will make it easier for Mathews is that Tennessee has a gifted backfield. Tailback Travis Henry, who rushed for 1,760 yards the past two seasons, replaces Jamal Lewis in the starting lineup. Lewis was the highest of the Vols' NFL picks, chosen fifth overall by the Baltimore Ravens.

Also, Travis Stephens, redshirted last year, had a 100-yard game against Georgia as a freshman. Wide receiver Cedric Wilson is another pivotal element on offense.

The biggest concern, though, surrounds the offensive line. All-American guard Cosey Coleman departed after his junior year, leaving just one returning starter on the line, guard Fred Weary. Center Greg Barnum transferred, as well, leaving another hole.

On defense, cornerback Andre Lott, end Will Overstreet, tackle John Henderson and linebacker Eric Westmoreland form a talented unit.

The biggest question to answer, though, is whether Mathews can make up for a huge void.

"I'm in a rush to play," Mathews said. "With the backfield we have and the receivers, I know we can get it done."

Tennessee Schedule- Sept. 2 Southern Miss; Sept. 16 Florida; Sept. 23 NE Louisiana; Sept. 30 at LSU; Oct. 7 at Georgia; Oct. 21 Alabama; Oct. at South Carolina; Nov. 4 at Memphis; Nov. 11 Arkansas; Nov. 18 Kentucky; Nov. 25 at Vanderbilt

Tennessee Volunteers Capsule

COACH: Phillip Fulmer (76-14 in eight years at Tennessee)


OUT: The heart of the offense is gone in quarterback Tee Martin and running back Jamal Lewis. Also gone is All-American guard, Cosey Coleman. He was one of five juniors to leave early.

IN: Tailback Travis Henry will take over the ground duty for Lewis. On defense, linebacker Eric Westmoreland and defensive end Will Overstreet are the key returners.

BIG PLUS: The Vols are returning 12 starters, including defensive linemen Will Overstreet and John Henderson.

BIG MINUS: The Vols are without a clear quarterback candidate. The top prospect is sophomore Joey Mathews. Not far behind is Casey Clausen. Guard Fred Weary is the only returning starter on the offensive line.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: The quarterback situation has to become clear for the Vols to be successful. Also, with most of the secondary gone, Tennessee must defend against the pass in the air-happy Southeastern Conference.

BOTTOM LINE: Tennessee has to recover from key departures in time to beat Florida in the second week of the season, and Georgia three weeks later.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. Southern Miss
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee

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