It's time for Vols to shine

By Ivan Sanders
STAR Correspondent
isanders@starhq.com

   It's that time of year that I love to see roll around, when in years past the sound of "It's football time in Tennessee" echoed off the mountains surrounding this great state of Tennessee as John Ward proudly proclaimed that the Volunteers were in the house and ready to play.
   On Saturday, orange will once again be the state color of choice as the Vols open their 2002 campaign in Nashville against the Wyoming Cowboys.
   I can't help but feel that Coach Phillip Fulmer and the rest of the Tennessee coaching staff are still scratching their heads over the personnel they will need to fill the key positions of any great offensive team, that being the receiver and running back positions.
   Sure, Casey Clausen will have Kelly Washington, a sure first-round NFL draft pick, as well as local product and highly touted tight-end Jason Witten to toss the pigskin to this season. But the remainder of the puzzle still appears to be missing at the receiving end from all indications coming from the Volunteer camp.
   I know without a doubt that everyone from Carter County and the surrounding area will be pulling for Witten to have a banner year to back up all the pre-season hype he has received from scouting reports.
   Rest assured the young man has worked his can off to fulfill those predictions, but if the Vols cannot find more able bodies to take some of the pressure off Witten this season, it will be a long and frustrating season for the Volunteer junior and former Cyclone standout.
   As for Washington, reports are that the Vols' big-time receiver will sit out the opening game against Wyoming. A publication out of Laramie, Wyoming quoted Cowboy's head coach Vic Koenning as saying the only way he will believe Washington will not play is if he isn't geared up when both teams take the field at the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
   This will most definitely free the Cowboy secondary up to place more pressure on Witten until someone else steps up and delivers for the Vols. Clausen, who has gained both muscle and knowledge by staying in Knoxville this summer, will play more assured of himself this year and can ring up bigger numbers than Peyton Manning and Heath Shuler if he can get the needed protection from his mammoth line this season.
   Vol fans shouldn't fret too much about the departure of Travis Stephens as there is a wealth of talent to choose from. On Saturday against Wyoming, look for several backs to touch the ball from the running back position, including Cedric Houston, Derrick Tinsley, Jabari Davis, Keldrick Williams and freshman sensation Gerald Riggs. Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy
   Sanders will be wide-eyed as each back takes his turn to see which one really is ready to step up and take over for the departed Stephens.
   The offense looks like it can generate a lot of points if all the pieces of the puzzle come together the way Fulmer and the rest of the Vol faithful hope they will. Entering this Saturday's contest, the Vols are already penciled in as almost 31-point favorites over the Cowboys, who are playing this game as a home game despite being a long way from Lamarie.
   Defensively, the NFL took a huge bite out of the starting defensive unit with Will Overstreet, Albert Haynesworth and "Big" John Henderson now wearing jerseys of another color on the weekend. Despite the loss, former Science Hill standout and senior lineman Aubrayo Franklin will be looked to fill the shoes at one of the tackle slots.
   Franklin has paid his dues and will be counted on to have an outstanding year from his tackle slot. Against the Cowboys on Saturday, Franklin and the rest of the defensive front line will need to get a lot of pressure on Cowboy junior QB Casey Bramlet, who led Wyoming to the 15th-best passing offense in the country last season.
   Talking about having receiving problems, Wyoming's offensive coordinator's biggest problem this year will not be who is going to step in, but how to disperse the ball equally to no less than five big time Cowboy receivers. Four of the five receivers accounted for 181 pass receptions from Bramlet for a total of 2,675 yards and nine TDs during last year's campaign.
   The Volunteer secondary will have a big headache if they cannot provide adequate coverage of the Cowboys four receiver set, including the fifth part of the Wyoming receiver corps in redshirt freshman Jovon Bouknight who led the two major fall scrimmages with 19 receptions for 197 yards.
   A lot of people in this area are already talking 'National Championship", but if the Volunteers have a chance at another title, they must not look over these Cowboys. Yes, Miami is coming to Knoxville this season, but the title run begins on Saturday in Nashville and if the Vols rest on their laurels they could find themselves out of the picture after the first game if they allow Wyoming to lasso them around the neck and pull them into a very unwelcome position.
   It will be fun this season watching the Vols play, but I still am a little concerned about the lack of depth at receiver and the lottery contest being waged by the running back candidates.
   I, along with other 'Big Orange' supporters, will feel better if Tennessee can identify the back that is ready to take a large piece of the offensive pie on their shoulders and help Travis Stephens be a name that will remain in our memories and not on our tongues during this year's charge toward the national title.
   Nashville should be rocking this weekend as the Vols contingency will far outnumber the Cowboy faithful. Hopefully, by the time the final gun sounds there will be nothing but the sound of 'Rocky Top' playing and orange smiles throughout the state with the Vols victorious. On the other hand, it would be a crushing blow if Wyoming pulls the early season stunner.
   Tennessee needs to not overlook their opponent. If business is taken care of on both sides of the pigskin, Tennessee can only then begin to talk again about a title until Middle Tennessee comes calling in Knoxville next weekend.