Witten bright spot in checkered UT season

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR CORRESPONDENT
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   As his junior season nears the end, University of Tennessee tight end Jason Witten embarks on what could be a big winter of decision making.
   Leading the team in receiving with 42 receptions for 402 yards, Elizabethton's Witten has been a big part of the injury-plagued Volunteers.
   With the injury to Kelley Washington, Witten has become the focus of every defense his team faces and its been hard for him.
   "It's tough, sometimes they double and triple team me. I've learned a lot, and I've gotten better from it," said Witten. "Tony Brown and the other guys have gotten better. I wish we had a guy like Kelley in there. But if it helps getting the other guys better matchups, then I'm all for it."
   Jason believes that this year's season has been frustrating on all fronts for the Volunteers.
   "It's been good, and frustrating," he said. "We've had some tough losses and injuries, but we've learned a lot from it as players. The team has come together."
   A lot of blame on the season has been placed on Tennessee head coach Philip Fulmer and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. According to Witten, they have overlooked the criticism and worked for the betterment of the squad.
   "They've been positive," Witten said. "I think we have the best coaches in the country. They haven't pointed the blame, and it's tough for them. They remind us to go play hard every day."
   Jason recently set a record at the University of Tennesse for the most receiving yards by a tight end.
   His work ethic and determination during each off-season have made him become a better player, as he is listed as one of the best tight ends in America.
   He leads Tennessee in receiving this season, something that tight ends haven't been known for in Knoxville.
   "It was a huge honor, and I respect that a lot," Witten said. "Without Casey and the line blocking, I couldn't have done it. With Kelley out, it's been tough to respond to all of that. To lead in receiving is a pretty big deal for a tight end down there."
   Jason has played for two different quarterbacks this season in Clausen and freshmen James Banks. It has been a good experience for him.
   "They are two totally different players, Casey will throw it and James will run it," Witten said. "James has done a good job. He is 1-1 as a starter, and he will be good. It's been a good experience to play with them."
   Even amongst a struggling season like this one, Jason believes the support from his hometown is the best.
   "I couldn't ask for better support than I've got here in Elizabethton," he said. "I always tell my teammates that I have the best fans back home than anywhere in the country. They've always been good to me, and very appreciative."
   Jason keeps in frequent touch with his brother Shawn, who plays wide reciever for Virginia Tech. Jason said its been a memorable year for Shawn.
   "He's been good," Jason said. "He has his last home game coming up (which Virginia Tech won on Saturday). He's really been excited this year. They lost three in a row, but they are hoping to come back out there strong. I hope he can win the next few games to send him out with a big career.
   "My family's all been great, it's special to have a family like I have. If I don't feel like talking and I'm frustrated about the games, they are are there for me, and they are far supportive in the decisions I have to make."
   Jason's mother, Kim, has been back and forth between Blacksburg and Knoxville with both of her sons playing 1-A football. It's been a great expirience for her.
   "It's just great," she said. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if it's real."
   She was shown on ESPN after Jason's memorable game-winning catch in the six-overtime game against Arkansas.
   "It was the most exciting thing I believe I've ever seen happen," said Kim. "I just said to myself how good would it be for him to score the game-winning touchdown. Then he did it, and it was great. I wanted to jump over the wall and run down there."
   It ranks up there as one of the best memories for Jason.
   "The six-overtime game is something I'll cherish forever," Jason said. "It was such a brutal game, and to be able to come out with a win and the winning touchdown was cool.
   "I think the toughest thing about this year, is that we're not in the hunt (for a national title). Our team has been really close since we've been through so much. We've had three linebackers and our best defensive end go down, and it has added on and on each week.
   "We kind of made a pact to go on the same page with each other. It's been fun to be a part of the friendships we have."
   After this year's bowl game, big decisions will loom for Witten. No matter which path he takes, he will always have a town behind him.