Steeped in success: ranking the best Vols players from each decade.

2010s

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Tennessee vs Nebraska

Offense – Joshua Dobbs

W/L record as starter: 23-14

Key stats: 87 total touchdowns, 2,100+ rushing yards as a quarterback

Honors: led the SEC in touchdowns (2016)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Joshua Dobbs was one of the most under-appreciated and under-developed players in Tennessee history. I say “was,” because shortly after his departure, Vol fans realized he spent four years carrying Butch Jones on his back. Dobbs is one of the only major college quarterbacks of the modern era to not have a quarterbacks coach. His offensive coordinator was a former swim & dive coach at Michigan, best known as the guy who benched TOM BRADY. In spite of all of this, Dobbs was a dynamic playmaker burdened with inept coaching and mediocre teams. He lead the SEC in touchdowns in 2016, and who could forget him chasing a Georgia defender who recovered a fumble 100 yards to make a touchdown stopping tackle. Dobbs lead the Vols to a remarkable comeback win in Neyland over a superior Bulldog team. This epitomized Dobbs the scholar, Dobbs the leader, Dobbs the football player.

Defense – Derek Barnett

W/L record as starter: 25-14

Key stats: 32 career sacks (TN record)

Honors: All-American (2016), lead SEC in sacks & TFL (2016)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Without Derek Barnett, the Vols would currently own a thirteen year losing streak against Florida. He was an absolute stud and playmaker from the defensive end spot. His late forced fumble against the Gators in 2016 spurred the Vols miraculous come back. Barnett averaged more than ten sacks a season in his three shining years on Rocky Top. Along the way, he even stole the teams’ career sack record from some guy named Reggie White.

2000s

berry

Offense – Travis Stephens

W/L record as starter: 10-2

Key stats: 1,464 rush yards in a season (Tennessee record)

Honors: All-American (2001)

Championships: National Champion (1998), SEC Champion (1997, 1998)

Breakdown:

Travis Stephens burst on to the scene in 1998 as the backup to the better known Travis Henry. After redshirts and injuries hampered him for the remainder of that decade, Stephens finally got his shot as the Vols’ number one back in 2001. Stephens set the Vols’ single season rush record that year, an accomplishment that stands untouched today. Stephens angry style of running exemplified a bygone era of smash mouth Tennessee football. He’s not the most acclaimed or recognized player in Tennessee gridiron lore, but it’s hard to argue that anyone else deserves this spot more than he does.

Defense – Eric Berry

W/L record as starter: 22-15

Key stats: 494 career interception return yards (SEC record) Lead NCAA in interception yard and interceptions returned for touchdown (2007, 2008)

Honors: All-American (2008, 2009), SEC Defensive Player of the Year (2008), Jim Thorpe Award Winner (2009)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Eric Berry was the most electrifying Volunteer defender in decades. As a true freshman in 2007, he “took the cape off of Tim Tebow,” when he housed an interception off the Heisman winner in the swamp. What’s more remarkable than Berry’s first two seasons as a secondary high flyer, is the transition he made in his final season under new coach, Lane Kiffin. The consummate team player, Berry transitioned into a hybrid safety/linebacker position to fill a need in Kiffin’s complex system. He went on to win the Jim Thorpe award that season, the highest honor bestowable upon a defensive back. Had Berry stayed at free safety that year, he would certainly own a plethora of NCAA interception records.

1990s

MANNING GETS LAST MINUTE ADVICE FROM FULMER

Offense – Peyton Manning

W/L record as starter: 40-9

Key stats: Tennessee single season and career leader in every passing statistic

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (2017), Heisman Trophy Runner Up (1997),

All-American (1997), Number 16 retired

Championships: SEC Champion (1997)

Breakdown:

Peyton Manning is regarded by many to be the greatest quarterback to ever play the game at any level. The fact that he does not have a Heisman Trophy is more of an indictment of that institution than it is of Manning. His prolific passing and leadership took the Vols from good to great in the mid 90s. When he made the decision to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season, he was cemented as a legend in Knoxville.

Defense – Dale Carter

W/L record as starter: 18-5-2

Key stats: Led the SEC in punt, kickoff, and interception return yards (1990,1991)

Honors: All-American (1990, 1991)

Championships: SEC Champion (1990), Sugar Bowl Champion (1990)

Breakdown:

The prolific defensive back struck fear in the hearts of quarterbacks in his two seasons on Rocky Top. Carter was a hawking safety who was dangerous with the ball in his hands. The two time All-American was equally skilled as a return man, leading the conference twice in punt and kickoff return yardage. Carter scored two touchdowns in 1990 without ever taking an offensive snap.

1980s

reggie

Offense – Tim McGee

W/L record as starter: 16-5-3

Key stats: Led the SEC in receptions and receiving yards (1985)

Honors: All-American (1985)

Championships: SEC Champion (1985), Sugar Bowl Champion (1985)

Breakdown:

In a decade that saw Tennessee come to be known as Wide Receiver U, McGee outshined greats like Willie Gault, Alvin Harper and Carl Pickens. When McGee left Rocky Top, he held school career records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In the era of pass happy west coast offenses, those records have been broken and broken again, but this pioneering wide out still ranks in the top ten of nearly every school receiving category over thirty years later.

Defense – Reggie White

W/L record as starter: 23-12-1

Key stats: Holds Tennessee records for sacks in a single season,15 (1985), and sacks in a single game, 4 (1985)

Honors: Pro Football Hall of Fame (2006), College Football Hall of Fame (2002), SEC Player of the Year (1983), All-American (1983), Number 92 retired

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Reggie White is the greatest defensive player in the history of the sport. Period. The outspoken but humble “Minister of Defense” is an NFL MVP, two time Hall of Famer, and Super Bowl Champion. He recorded 15 sacks in a single season in an era where teams threw the football significantly less. His career sack record at Tennessee withstood 33 years of elite Tennessee defenders with many more opportunities to sack pass happy quarterbacks. It is hard to summarize all that White meant to Tennessee, and to football, so I’ll just say this; he changed the game forever.

1970s

Jackie

Offense – Larry Seivers

W/L record as starter: 17-17

Key stats: Led the SEC in receptions (1975, 1976), receiving yards (1975) and yards per catch (1975)

Honors: All-American (1975, 1976)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Larry Seivers was a great player from a terrible era of Tennessee football. Perhaps this is why so many young Vol fans are entirely unaware of him. The two time All-American played on teams devoid of talent, and still managed to consistently lead the league statistically. He was the first great Tennessee wide receiver in the fledgling years of passing offense.

Defense – Jackie Walker

W/L record as starter: 21-3

Key stats: 11 career interceptions and five interceptions returned for a touchdown as a linebacker (NCAA record)

Honors: All-American (1970,1971)

Championships: Sugar Bowl Champion (1970)

Breakdown:

Jackie Walker was Tennessee’s first black football player, and the first black captain of an SEC football team. Those in and of themselves are feats. Walker was the leader of the Vols’ legendary 1970 defense that cashed an untouchable record 36 interceptions. Walker is not in the Hall of Fame possibly due to the fact that he lived as an openly gay man in the early 1970s. An athlete in an era of slow, plodding linebackers, Walker was a revolutionary defender. He still owns a share of the NCAA record for interceptions returned for a touchdown.

1960s

delong.jpg

Offense – Bob Johnson

W/L record as starter: 25-6-2

Key stats: N/A

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1989), Starting Center (College Football Quarter Century All-American Team) All-American (1966, 1967)

Championships: National Champion (1967), SEC Champion (1967)

Breakdown:

Bob Johnson: All-American, National Champion, Eagle Scout, Academic All-American, FCA President, 11 time NFL team captain and all around good guy. Johnson is one of the greatest and most well rounded men to ever play center. In an era in which stats for offensive linemen were not recorded, one must rely upon the testimony of others. Journalists regard Johnson as the greatest center of his era. He was the face of Doug Dickey’s Vols in the 1960s.

Defense – Steve DeLong

W/L record as starter: 13-16-1

Key stats: N/A

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1993), Outland Trophy (1964), SEC Defensive Lineman of the year (1962, 1963, 1964), All-American (1963, 1964)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

DeLong was a legend in his time. No statistics are available to truly measure DeLong’s destruction, but he is universally regarded as one of the greatest nose tackles of his era. While his teams found little success on the field, DeLong was a national standout. He and his son Keith are the only father son All-American duo in Tennessee history.

1950s

doug

Offense – Johnny Majors

W/L record as starter: 20-10-1

Key stats: 1,000 plus yards as a quarterback, halfback, punter, and kick returner.

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1987) SEC Player of the Year (1955, 1956), Heisman Trophy Runner Up (1956), All-American (1956), Number 45 retired

Championships: SEC Champion (1956)

Breakdown:

Majors was the first in a distinguished line of Tennessee stars to be robbed of the illustrious Heisman Trophy. He was runner up to media sweetheart Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung. Hornung remains the only man to ever win the trophy on a losing team. When his playing days were finished, Majors found much success as a national champion head coach in Pittsburg, with all-time great back Tony Dorsett. Following his championship season at Pitt, Johnny returned home to Knoxville, were he lead the Vols to several SEC and Sugar Bowl championships over a 15 year period.

Defense – Doug Atkins

W/L record as starter: 29-3-1

Key stats: N/A

Honors: Pro Football Hall of Fame (1982), College Football Hall of Fame (1985),

All-American (1952), Number 91 retired

Championships: National Champion (1950, 1951), SEC Champion (1951)

Breakdown:

Before there was Reggie White, there was Doug Atkins. The 6’8″ defensive end was a physical freak, unblockable by the greats of his time. He was the first man to ever be sworn in to both the College and Professional Football Halls of Fame. He led Tennessee to two National titles, and its first consensus title in General Neyland’s final years on Rocky Top. Atkins is considered by some to be the greatest college football defensive lineman of all time.

1940s

hank

Offense – Hank Lauricella

W/L record as starter: 28-4-1

Key stats: 29 total touchdowns, 7.9 career yards per carry

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1981) All-American (1951), Heisman Trophy Runner Up (1951)

Championships: National Champion (1950, 1951), SEC Champion (1951)

Breakdown:

“Mr. Everything” was the face of General Neyland’s third and final stint as Tennessee’s head ball coach. The two time national champion did it all: run, pass, catch, block, kick and punt. His 75-yard run in the 1951 Cotton Bowl is one of the earliest Vol football highlights available. It is as dazzling a rush as Barry Sanders or LeVeon Bell could ever hope to string together. Admittedly, the exemplary period of Lauricella’s career came in the 1950s, but how could he be omitted from this list?

Offense/Defense – Bob Suffridge

W/L record as starter: 31-2

Key stats: N/A

Honors: All-Time SEC Team (1982), All-American (1938, 1939, 1940)

Championships: National Champion (1938, 1940), SEC Champion (1938, 1939, 1940)

Breakdown:

Bob Suffridge, a two way lineman, is Tennessee’s only three time All-American. That’s a high honor when one considers his lofty company on this list. Suffridge won two National Championships, three SEC Championships, and lead a 1939 Vols squad that is the last team in history to go unbeaten and unscored upon. Yes, they literally shut out every single opponent that season, and still were not crowned national champions. Legend has it that Suffridge once blocked the same kick three times, twice being called off sides before finally smacking the PAT down fair and square.

1930s

feathers

Offense/Defense – George Caffego

W/L record as starter: 21-1

Key stats: N/A

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1969), All-American (1938, 1939)

Championships: National Champion (1938), SEC Champion (1938, 1939)

Breakdown:

George “Bad News” Caffego, also called “The Hurrying Hungarian,” ran, blocked, passed and tackled his way into Volunteer lore. Caffego was a leader on Tennessee’s first ever National Championship team. Had he not missed the 1939 Rose Bowl due to injury, it’s likely that Tennessee would have captured three straight national titles to cap off the decade.

Offense/Defense – Beattie Feathers

W/L record as starter: 25-3-2

Key stats: 1,888 career rushing yards (A 37-year school record), 9.9 yards per carry with the Chicago Bears (NFL Record)

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1955), SEC Player of the Year (1933), All-American (1933)

Championships: SoConn Champion (1932)

Breakdown:

“Beattie didn’t think in terms of first downs, only touchdowns.” Beattie Feathers might be the best running back to ever put on the orange and white. In an era in which little Tennessee was a national afterthought compared to USC and Notre Dame, Feathers got little respect and recognition – except from pro scouts. He went on to become the first NFL player to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, and in 2010 Bleacher Report named him a “forgotten legend.” Had he played in a different region or time, Beattie would have trophies, championship rings, and maybe a statue.

1920s

gene mcever

Offense – Bobby Dodd

W/L record as starter: 27-1-2

Key stats: N/A

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1959), All-American (1930)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

Dodd is best known for his Hall of Fame coaching career at Georgia Tech, but before leading the Yellow Jackets to national prominence, he put Tennessee on the map in the late 1920s at the right hand of then Colonel Robert R. Neyland. Dodd quarterbacked the Vols to a key win over then juggernaut Vanderbilt, running and passing for over 300 yards, a phenomenal feat in that era. Tennessee’s lack of brand recognition stopped a man who only lost one game in three seasons from ever being crowned a champion.

Offense/Defense – Gene McEver

W/L record as starter: 27-0-3

Key stats: lead the nation in scoring (1929), Tennessee all-time leader in rushing touchdowns in a career, season, and single game.

Honors: College Football Hall of Fame (1954), All-American (1929, 1931)

Championships: none

Breakdown:

“He was the best player I ever coached, the best I ever saw,” General Neyland. Is there any higher praise for a football player? McEver was Tennessee’s first All-American, its first Hall-of-Famer, its first super-star. McEver’s late touchdown catch against Alabama set the foundation for one of the sports’ great rivalries. He is Tennessee’s original Mr. Football.

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