Concluding the weekend blog with my Top 5 favorite Tennessee players in the last 15 years, the best of the best:
5. Leonard Little (DE/LB - 1995-97)
The best word to describe Little is violent. Versatile is another good one, as Little played both defensive end and outside linebacker, and well. He made several highlight reel hits against opposing quarterbacks - in a game few will remember, Leonard Little could've been charged with attempted murder on Kentucky QB Billy Jack Haskins in 1995, taking part in the single greatest beating I've ever seen a quarterback take in person, by far - and was at his finest against Alabama, introducing himself to Freddie Kitchens on multiple occassions. Before guys like Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney made the rush end a must-have in the NFL, Leonard Little was one of a kind at the University of Tennessee at it. Little ranks second all time at UT in sacks, only 4 behind Reggie White with 28 - and Little only played 3 years.
4. Jay Graham (RB - 1993-96)
Much like Peerless Price, there have been other Tennessee players at this position who were better at individual things - speed, tackle-breaking, etc. - but Jay Graham made the biggest runs in the biggest games. What Travis Stephens did against Florida, Jay Graham did to Alabama twice, but was more overlooked because the quarterback's name was Manning. Stephens - playing in an additional game - picked up the single season rushing record in 2001, but Graham was even more money in 1995. Both men couldn't make it stick in the NFL, but both were true heroes on the brightest collegiate stage.
3. Peyton Manning (QB - 1994-97)
Shock! Gasp! Stay with me on this one. You can write your paragraph of choice on why Manning is great. For me, it was his ability to prove that he was one step better than even the very best. The same way Larry Bird made a missed shot a rarity, Manning made an incomplete pass something to talk about. In 1995, he threw 4 interceptions in 12 games. He made the ridiculous plays, like at Georgia where he turned a QB sneak into a touchdown pass. There is no question that Manning is the most famous, the most talented, and the best individual player to ever play here. Peyton is the only UT quarterback to throw for 500 yards. Peyton is the only UT quarterback to throw for 400 yards, which he did twice. Of the Top 50 passing yardage performances in UT history, Manning owns the top four, and 18 overall. The next closest quarterbacks have 7 (Casey Clausen, and....)
2. Andy Kelly (QB - 1988-1991)
Success, to a certain degree, is relative. And while we've always been thinking about National Championships around here with varying degrees of reality, that foundation was built on the back of players like Andy Kelly. In 1988, the Vols were 5-6, and supposed to be about that bad again in 1989. Instead, the Pride of Rhea County took the reigns as a sophmore and guided the Vols to an 11-1 season and the SEC Championship, turning everything about this program around. The following year - the biggest roller coaster season in UT history - the Vols battled to a 9-2-2 record and another SEC Championship. In 1990 the goal, the prize, the ultimate realistic idea was the Sugar Bowl. The Vols won the SEC and got there, playing Virginia. If you're too young for it...imagine Peyton Manning playing a perfect game against Nebraska and the Vols winning the Orange Bowl. On the greatest stage, Andy Kelly brought the Vols from down 16-0 at halftime to victory, with a 4th quarter for the ages, making every play and becoming a hero. The hometown boy went from hero to legend in South Bend the following year, guiding the Vols to the 35-34 win on the road. Before Tee, Manning, or Shuler...before National Championships, Phillip Fulmer, Steve Spurrier and all the things that define the Vols today...Andy Kelly made it all possible. The hometown boy became the perfect leader, and the man who took the Vols to the next level.
1. Al Wilson (LB - 1995-1998)
On a list that's based on memories, you'd want a player who was there for the Vols' four most successful seasons. You'd want a leader, who commanded the respect of his teammates and opponents. You'd want someone who cared, who played hurt. You would want someone who defined his position, playing it so well that everything before him was obsolete, and everything after him bears his mark (quote stolen from Dave Chappelle talking about Richard Pryor). And you'd like it if he was around to win the ring in 1998. Al Wilson was more than just around. He was the heart, soul, and individual embodiment of the Vols. And he was mean. He wore a permanent scowl on his face, and played every play like it was his last. There is only one Al Wilson. And there is no other choice to top this list.
(all statistics found using the University of Tennessee football media guide)
Agree? Disagree? Got a list of your own? Be it Top 5 or 25, feel free to add comments below. Who's the next great Vol to join this list? Well, as they say, that's why they play the games...