For Tennessee football fans, there was little to be thankful for on the gridiron over the holiday weekend. Now another stressful coaching search is underway, one that will likely determine the immediate success or failure of the program. With that being said, hopefully this reflective piece will be a welcome distraction from the current doldrums in which Vol Nation finds itself.
Disclaimer: this list is inherently subjective. There are easily 20 players for whom it could be reasonably argued that they belong on this list. The criteria by which they will be evaluated are as follows: win loss record, statistical achievements, the eye test, and overall impact on the game. Offensive linemen will be omitted from this list, because…. c’mon that’s pretty boring.
7. Cordarrelle Patterson – WR (2012)
Team achievements: None
Records/Awards: TN record for all-purpose yards in a season (1,858)
Coradarrelle Patterson is the most elusive and electrifying football player I’ve ever seen in person. His elusiveness and field vision conjure up memories of the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers, slipping and dodging defenders all the way to the end-zone. Patterson only played one season on Rocky Top, and unfortunately for him, it was Derek Dooley’s last as captain of a sinking ship. That being said, Patterson individually was a phenom. His games against Missouri and Troy are some of the most amazing individual performances I’ve ever witnessed. He caught, he ran, he returned and he threw. He scored touchdowns (10 of them) in every possible fashion, and set the all-time Tennessee record for total yardage in a single season. Perhaps that is why Patterson ranks so low on this list, given his ability. He isn’t quite a natural fit at any one position, but if he gets in open space it doesn’t matter what letter is next to his name on the roster.
6. Jason Witten – TE (2000-2002)
Team achievements: Top 5 finish (2001)
Records/Awards: All-SEC (2002), holds all single season Tennessee tight end records
The Elizabethton native came to Knoxville in the summer of 2000 believing he would play defensive end. He sat on the bench, under utilized and seldom played until his breakout junior season, in which he set every Tennessee single season tight end record he could. He scored a memorable touchdown over the middle in the 6th overtime against Arkansas in 2002, sealing the game for the Vols. Witten ranks on this list not just because of his one remarkable year on Rocky Top, but because he is future a first ballot NFL Hall of Famer. Witten, currently the host of Monday Night Football, played 15 seasons in the NFL, all for the Dallas Cowboys. He will go down as one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game.
5. Reggie Cobb – HB (1987-1989)
Team achievements: Top 5 finish (1989)
Records/Awards: School record for rushing touchdowns in a season (17), *held a school record for all purpose yards in a season (1,721), *held an SEC record for touchdowns in a single season (20). *signifies a record that has since been broken
Reggie Cobb is etched in Tennessee lore among the all-time greats. One of the late John Ward’s most famous calls comes on Cobb’s 79 yard fourth quarter touchdown run against Auburn in 1989, “This is Cobb up the middle….” Cobb’s 1987 season was as exemplary a season as any Volunteer has ever had. Cobb was dismissed midway through his junior year, after failing a fourth drug test. Had he been able to control his private life, Cobb would likely be Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher, and a more prominent household name of the 80s and 90s. When he was dismissed, he was closely battling Emmitt Smith for the SEC rushing title.
4. Heath Shuler (1991-1993)
Team achievements: 18-5-1 record as a starter
Records/Awards: 1993 Heisman Trophy runner-up, 1993 SEC Player of the Year, All-American (1993)
Before Heath Shuler was the Congressman from North Carolina’s 11th congressional district, he was the quarterback of Tennessee’s preeminent football team. Shuler quarterbacked during the ugly transition between Vol legends Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. Under Fulmer’s tutelage, Shuler set many Tennessee passing records, including passing yards and touchdowns in a single season. His successor, Peyton Manning, would eradicate these in less than five years, but for a short while Heath Shuler was the passing king of Tennessee. Because of his proximity to Manning, Shuler is the forgotten UT legend. He was prolific in 1993, nearly winning a Heisman Trophy, and leading the Vols to the Citrus Bowl.
3. Johnny Majors – QB/HB (1954-1956)
Team achievements: 10-1 SEC Champion & National runner-up in 1956
Records/Awards: 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up, SEC Player of the Year (1955, 1956), All-American (1956)
In 1956, utility player Johnny Majors lead the Vols to an undefeated regular season, and nearly a national championship. The two time SEC MVP could and often did do everything: punt, pass, kick, run, block, slice etc. Majors was the first in a long lineage of Tennessee players to be robbed of the Heisman trophy. Paul Hornung of Notre Dame edged out Majors for the award in 1956. Hornung remains the only player with a losing record, 2-8, to ever win the trophy. Majors was an unstoppable force for Bowden Wyatt’s Vols, racking up thousands of total yards in his career.
2. Beattie Feathers – HB (1931-1933)
Team achievements: 25-3-2 overall record
Records/Awards: 1933 SEC MVP, All-American (1933)
Beattie Feathers is the best player you’ve never heard of. There is little footage of his career, but the astounding stories and statistics abound. He was Bo Jackson before Bo Jackson. He once punted a ball 76 yards in the driving rain against Alabama. He scored 32 touchdowns in 30 games during a time when games routinely ended with no touchdowns scored at all. Against Mississippi State he had rushes of 65, 70, and 80 yards in a single game. Against Alabama, he averaged 46 yards a punt after fielding 26 in a single game. His career rushing yards record stood at Tennessee for nearly 40 years. Feathers still holds the NFL record for yards per rushing attempt in a season at 9.9. Had he not sustained a career altering injury in his second season with the Chicago Bears, he might be remembered along with Walter Peyton and Jim Brown. Feathers is in a class of his own when it comes to Tennessee tailbacks.
1. Peyton Manning – QB (1994-1997)
Team achievements: 1997 SEC Champion, 39-6 record as a starter
Records/Awards: Holds every career passing record for a Tennessee quarterback, including wins (39), passing yards (11,201), touchdowns (101), and completion percentage (62.5), SEC record for wins by a quarterback, 1997 Heisman Trophy runner up, 1997 SEC Player of the year, All-American (1997)
How does one summarize the impact Peyton Manning had on the game of football? He’s more than a football player. He is a cultural icon. For two decades in the NFL he battled Tom Brady for the title of the Greatest of All-Time. In college, he lead the Volunteers to their most prominent four year run in the modern era of college football. He rewrote the record books, and the instruction manuals for how the quarterback position was meant to be played. He is a College Football Hall of Famer, and will be an NFL Hall of Famer as soon as he’s eligible. He is the University’s chief ambassador. He walked away from millions to come back for his senior season. Without him, Tennessee football may well just be known as that team that was really good back before we had color television. Peyton Manning is Tennessee.