Witten can bask in glow of Citrus heroics

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF

   On Friday afternoon, a local sportswriter walked into a class at Little Milligan Elementary School being taught by principal J.R. Campbell, and was introduced as a certain University of Tennessee football player.
   But just like the whole country found out on January 1, the group of third graders quickly realized who Jason Witten really is.
   The Tennessee tight end and former Elizabethton High standout was on hand at the Butler school to sign autographs just three days after his big game at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
   Witten caught six passes for 125 yards in Tennessee's 45-17 victory over Michigan. One of those catches was a 64-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Casey Clausen.
   "It was really special for me to come back out there and have a big game," Witten said. "It was really what the team needed coming off a tough loss like we did."
   Witten's most memorable play of the game was definitely the touchdown reception. Clausen found Witten around the 50-yard line, and the tight end outran everybody to hit paydirt.
   "It was an opportunity for me to get in the open, and take advantage of that," Witten said. "Fortunately, Casey put it right on me, and I just used what God's given me to take it in the end zone."
   A quote about the touchdown made ESPN's Sportscenter that night, as Witten said he "Wasn't going to be denied."
   "I've always been a big competitor, and when I was going down through there I saw the end zone," Witten said. "I told myself I was going to do whatever it takes to get into the end zone. That's exactly what I did, and I wasn't going to be denied getting in there. And fortunately I wasn't."
   Witten's big game couldn't have come at a better time for the sophomore. Witten was coming off a couple of rough games going into the Citrus Bowl.
   The Vols did beat Florida on December 1 to win the SEC East, but Witten admitted it wasn't one of his better performances. The Vols then lost to LSU in the SEC championship game the next week, blowing a chance to play for the national championship.
   Witten felt like he had something to prove.
   "There's no question about it," Witten said when asked if he had something to prove. "I knew that I really needed to step up for this football team and for myself, and really show this country what this Tennessee football team is all about."
   Not everybody in Witten's family saw the standout performance by the tight end. Witten's mom and grandfather, former Elizabethton High School coaching great Dave Rider were there, but the rest of his family were just up the road in Jacksonville to watch his brother Shawn play for Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
   "It was tough not being able to have everybody there," Witten said. "It was tough for me, but when I made that decision to go to Tennessee I knew it wasn't going to be all great. But I can represent this town, and represent this family just as well on my own than I can with everybody there. It was a special time for me."
   The whole Witten family might have gotten a chance to see both brothers play if the Vols had made it to a BCS game, but Tennessee was passed over as an at-large team by Florida, the team Tennessee beat out to win the SEC East.
   Witten felt that might have been a little unfair.
   "I think definitely," Witten said when asked if the Vols might have been slighted by the BCS. "But that's how the BCS goes sometimes. We had our opportunity, and we took it all or nothing somewhat. Unfortunately we couldn't get it all. It was tough watching that game last night (The Rose Bowl) knowing that's where we should have been."
   Witten felt like if the Vols had been given the opportunity to play national champion Miami, the Hurricanes might not have been able to roll like they did against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
   "I think the way we played Tuesday, I don't think any team in the country could have stopped us," Witten said. "But I think Miami really is a tough football team and they deserve all they got. I really look forward to that matchup next year."
   The Vols will play Miami, Florida and Alabama at home in 2002, and will have road games at Georgia and South Carolina, but Witten is optimistic that the boys from Knoxville can be playing for the national championship next season.
   "I think that's why everybody came to Tennessee, so you can have the opportunity to contend for a national championship," Witten said. "Who would ever thought we would beat Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Michigan all in one year. That schedule is tough, and I think it's going to take a lot of luck and a great football season. We have a great coaching staff, and a lot of guys coming back. It's going to be an exciting football season next year."
   As for Witten himself, Tuesday might have been the start of something special for him. There is no doubt that the NFL scouts were watching, and it's becoming more apparent that Witten has a legitimate shot at making an NFL roster in the not too distant future.
   "I told the coaches about it the other day," Witten said. "At tight end it's a lot easier to make it for me. There's a lot going on about whether Jason Witten's going to stay his senior year. I know I have to have a big season next year for me and this football team.
   "There's a lot going on, but that's something a year away I guess, and I'll have to talk about to my family about that, and do whatever is best for me. But right now I'll definitely be back for my senior season. I know the scouts were watching and that's always great. When you're playing a team like Michigan there's a lot going on, a lot of tradition, and a lot of great athletes. I guess there was no better game for me to show what I could do than I did against Michigan."