Vols Present Challenge at Fayetteville

Thursday, November 11th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin's stats aren't the greatest -- except one. He's 20-1 as the Vols' starter.

"That's the only stat that counts," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Martin also has a national championship. By contrast, his predecessor, Peyton Manning, was 39-6 as a starter and never won a national title.

The No. 3 Volunteers are playing their best football of the season going into Saturday's game against Arkansas in Fayetteville, where the Razorbacks have yet to lose under second-year coach Houston Nutt.

Foremost among the Vols' collection of play-makers is Martin, who has crammed an eventful college career into his two years as a starter.

When he took over from Manning at the start of last season, Martin's primary charge was to give the ball to running back Jamal Lewis and not do anything stupid in the passing game.

"First of all, consider the unselfishness at the beginning of last season when he was trying to get his feet on the ground," Fulmer said. "We almost had a bridle on him, to be honest. And he found a way to win with that. After Jamal got hurt he had to do more, and found a way to win with that.

"We can just do about anything with Tee and find a way to win."

And winning is what Martin is all about.

"I don't care much about them," Martin said this week when asked whether he cares about individual awards. "They're like icing on the cake, and I don't really like icing. I like the cake."

The senior from the rough housing projects of Mobile, Ala., says he would be much happier with a second national championship than an individual award, even the Heisman Trophy.

"That's something I can share with other guys," he said. "If I get an individual award, Jamal or Cedrick (Wilson) might not know how that feels, but if we get a national championship we can all talk about that and share the moment. So it would be better for me."

Martin is quiet, laid-back, and very cool. He also has matured into the unquestioned leader of the team.

"He's the heart and soul of this team," tailback Travis Henry said. "He's a great guy to play with, and a good friend."

Fulmer said Martin's improved management of the offense is his biggest improvement this year.

"There are the obvious things, his throws and the plays he makes running," Fulmer said. "But you can't take for granted the tempo he keeps in the game, his command of the huddle, his involvement in the game plan as far as us being able to build things around his abilities."

Fulmer and Martin say he has a much greater awareness of the game than he did 21 starts ago.

"The game is slowing down so much to me now," Martin said. "Last year the game was fast and I was a little man in a big man's game. This year I'm one of the guys who knows a lot about the game, so it slows down for me."

Martin's stats are middle of the pack. He's fourth in the Southeastern Conference in passing yards per game (211), seventh in passing efficiency (125.1), and fourth in total offense (236 yards a game).

"We could pad his stats, throw a lot of short dinks," Fulmer said. "Tee could do anything we chose to do. Would that be best or our football team ? No. Usually when we throw it with him, he's making chunks or taking our shots."

Martin is the kind of player who can be having a bad day, then suddenly do something extraordinary to win a game. He was getting drilled in the chest when he made the 53-yard pass to set up the winning touchdown in a 17-16 victory over Memphis on Sept. 25. After throwing away several balls last week against Notre Dame, he struck for a 43-yard bomb to Leonard Scott that helped put the game away in the second half.

"I think Tennessee is better than last year because Tee Martin is playing his best football," Nutt said. "He always gives the defensive coordinator a nightmare because of his ability to escape. When things aren't there or things break down he's a great weapon because he's like a running back."

Or as Arkansas defensive coordinator Keith Burns put it: "Tee Martin could start at tailback for most teams in the league."

But he doesn't. He starts at quarterback for Tennessee, and Fulmer is glad of that.

"As long as he's got the supporting cast and stays healthy, he's going to have success," Fulmer said.

"Tee is playing exceptionally well."