Going into the ’93 season, everyone predicted Tennessee would be right in the middle of the SEC race, and they would be absolutely correct. What they may not have predicted was just how strong of a team Tennessee would have. The distractions of the 1992 season now gone, the Vols could focus on the future with new coach Phillip Fulmer.
The Vols returned a number of starters on both sides, and the most important player was the quarterback leading the offense, Heisman Trophy candidate Heath Shuler. Shuler had shown he was ready for the offense to be completely opened up under offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, and he had the weapons around him to do big damage to opposing defenses. All four running backs returned, along with receivers Cory Fleming and Craig Faulkner. Faulkner had announced during the spring he was quitting football due to a wrist injury suffered in a motorcycle wreck, but before the season decided to return after assurance he couldn’t hurt himself further. Junior College receiver Billy Williams, who had struggled for a year to get into school, was finally allowed to join the team in the fall. Three out of the five offensive linemen (Miller, Smith, Layman) returned and joined by returning tight end David Horne.
Defensive coordinator Larry Mummie also returned a core of talented players, but were viewed in the preseason as the Achilles heel of the team. The defense didn’t think much of those predictions, as they were led on the defensive line by seniors James Wilson, Horace Morris, Shane Bonham, and Paul Yatkowski. Linebackers Reggie Ingram and Ben Talley were joined by new starter Scott Galyon, while safety Jason Parker and cornerback DeRon Jenkins would lead a defensive backfield that would hope to continue to improve from the prior season. Junior kicking specialists John Becksvoort and Tom Hutton returned to the same spots they had held the previous two seasons along with returner Shawn Summers.
Tennessee would begin the season with a cupcake, as Louisiana Tech came into town knowing full well they were cannon fodder. A 50-0 rout proved it, as Shuler and the offense rolled while the defense manhandled the outgunned Bulldogs. Shuler passed for three TDs, two to Faulkner. Backup QB Jerry Colquitt, getting some late playing time, connected with Heath’s little brother, freshman receiver Benjie, for his first career catch and TD. The season was off to a good start.
#22 Georgia came into Knoxville for the SEC opener in a nationally televised ESPN night game. The first half saw a 7-6 struggle until the Vol offense woke up and scored 31 unanswered points. Shuler hit Cory Fleming on a screen pass for a touchdown before halftime that began the run. Fleming finished the game with 7 receptions, two of which went for scores. Charlie Garner provided the running game, going for 107 and a touchdown, and QB Jerry Colquitt scored on a short run to finish the scoring.
As it was with the rest of the 90’s the SEC winner was dependent on the annual Florida game. The game showcased two top 10 teams and a shootout was in order. Florida’s offense, led by RB Errict Rhett and QB Danny Wuerffel, kept the Vol defense off-balance all day, and started the game up 21-0 before the Vols began to answer. Tennessee fought punch for punch in the second half, but even with five TD passes by Shuler (three to Billy Williams), the Vols couldn’t overcome the Gators and fell 41-34.
Even with the disappointment of a Florida loss, there is always another game to be prepared. LSU came to Knoxville but probably wished they had not; the Vols took out their aggressions on the lowly Tigers in a 42-20 win. A balanced offense (251 yards rushing, 234 passing) led the way with Shuler hitting Fleming, Faulker, and Williams for a touchdown each. Once again, backup Jerry Colquitt hit Benjie Shuler for another TD. DeRon Jenkins had a good day for the defense, picking off one pass and recovering a fumble.
Duke came to Knoxville next for Homecoming and was just overmatched from the opening kickoff. Shuler threw for four touchdowns and Garner went for 129 yards on the ground with a couple of touchdowns. The defense did its part and whipped the Duke offense. Tennessee won easily, 52-19.
The Vols made its first trip to Little Rock since 1907 and came away with a hard-fought victory over Arkansas, 28-14. Neither defense was willing to give up big plays, and made the offenses dig in hard to make yards. The Vols were up 21-14 in the 4th quarter when the offense grinded out a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took more than six minutes off the clock to clinch the victory. Shuler threw for a touchdown and ran for two more.
The Third Saturday of October was next with a trip to Legion Field. The Vols had not beaten the Tide in seven years and knew it would take everything to finally break the current streak. The Vols for the first time in several years seemed laid back about the game, a much different attitude than the usual up-tight feeling portrayed under Coach Majors. Tennessee took a 7-3 lead with a Shuler to Faulkner pass, which was the first time Alabama had been behind that season. Alabama answered with two field goals to go up at halftime, 9-7. Tennessee would have been rolling if not for five turnovers, two interceptions and three fumbles, including one by James Stewart at the one-yard line going in for a touchdown. Tennessee went up 10-9 with a Becksvoort field goal and then on the first play of the 4th quarter, hit the Tide with a 73-yard touchdown run by Charlie Garner to take a 17-9 lead. The Vol defense held Alabama and all Tennessee had to do at this point was to get the ball back and run out the clock. Unfortunately, earlier in the game Shuler had suffered a partial dislocation on his non-throwing shoulder and his accuracy was off, going 0-8 passing in the second half. Tennessee could not convert on a 3rd down and had to punt back to Alabama with under two minutes left in the game, leaving the Tide with 82 yards to go. Alabama QB Jay Barker led his offense quickly down the field and scored on a 1-yard sneak to make it 17-15. From there, David Palmer took it student body right, and scored the 2-point conversion to tie the game 17-17. Time ran out, and the game finished as it had started, tied. Several years later, the game would be officially awarded to Tennessee when Alabama CB Antonio Langham was found to have been dealing with an agent and had been ineligible to play that season.
A bad South Carolina team came at the best possible moment for Tennessee after the disappointment of the Alabama game. Stewart and Garner both went over 100 yards on the ground and had touchdowns, as the offense rolled up 570 yards. Garner’s 60-yard touchdown run on the game’s second play set the tone. Four fumble recoveries and an interception gave the turnover-free Vols the huge advantage over the mistake-prone Gamecocks and crushed South Carolina, 55-3.
The November run began as Tennessee next took care of business against Louisville, taking a quick 14-0 lead in the 1st Quarter and wrapping up the game with three touchdowns over a 3-minute span of the 4th Quarter. Shuler scored both on the ground and in the air, and Nilo Silvan capped the scoring with a punt return touchdown after a reverse.
In the most one-sided victory in the history of the series, the Vols wiped out Kentucky, 48-0, in Lexington. Garner reached 1,000 yards on the season during the game, and Shuler threw three touchdowns, including two to Fleming to make him Tennessee’s career leader for touchdown receptions. The offense went for 571 yards while the defense limited Kentucky to 244. On a funny note, the Tennessee fans in attendance hoped Tennessee would kick a field goal at the end of the game to give the Vols a 51 point lead, which would match the beating Tennessee took from Kentucky in a previous basketball game between the schools (thanks, Wade Houston).
The final game of the season against Vandy was also the last game that would be played on artificial turf at Neyland Stadium, as it had been decided to replace the turf with natural grass following the season. The Volunteer offense finished the season in style by “tearing” up the turf in its own way. The offense went into the record books, routing the ‘Dores 62-14 on a dreary day, mainly sticking to the run game. Shawn Summers started the scoring with a 51-yard punt return and the Vols rolled with a 27-point outburst in the 2nd Quarter. The Vols mainly stuck to the ground, as Garner ran for 151 yards and a TD, Stewart scored three rushing touchdowns, and Mose Phillips went in for a one-yarder. Even WR Nilo Silvan got on the action on a 63-yard reverse. The defense that had shown the ability to grow during the season, showed off some younger players as they kept the Vandy offense in check.
With the regular season finished, Tennessee claimed a 9-1-1 record and set multiple school offensive records. Heath Shuler led the SEC and ranked sixth in the nation with a 157.3 passing rating. He broke several Tennessee passing records: most touchdown passes for a season (25); most touchdown passes in a single game (5 against Florida), and tied Andy Kelly for career touchdown passes (36). Charlie Garner became the first running back to reach 2,000 yards in just two seasons. Tennessee set the team passing TD record (31), offensive yards per game (480.5), points in a season (471, or 42.8 per game, good for second in the NCAA), and most touchdowns in a season (62).
Behind the university’s campaign of “You Must Be 21 to Win the Heisman,” Shuler was chosen as one of the 3 finalists to travel to New York as part of the Heisman Trophy presentation. Shuler, chosen along with Florida State QB Charlie Ward and Alabama multi-purpose player David Palmer, finished a distant second in the voting behind Ward, the front-runner most of the season. While not surprising (Ward finished with 740 first place votes and 2310 total), Tennessee fans were disappointed to once again be denied a Heisman trophy winner.
Tennessee would accept the bid to play Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. The major question on everyone’s mind was never about the game, but “Would Heath Shuler return for his senior season?” Unfortunately, the focus on Shuler’s future seemed to be a major distraction on the whole team as they went through Bowl prep. Penn State was simply the better prepared team, and the Vols lost 31-13.
A week later, Shuler confirmed the fears fans had maintained since the end of the season; he was turning pro and entering the NFL Draft. Shuler would finish his college career as one of the best to ever wear the Orange, passing for over 4,000 yards and 36 touchdowns in just two years as a starter. And he projected himself just as well off the field, becoming a loved son of the Big Orange Nation. He would be drafted third overall by the Washington Redskins.
The Vols would also lose leaders in key positions after the season outside of Shuler, as running back Garner and receivers Fleming and Faulkner had completed their eligibility, and an entire defensive line would have to be replaced. Coach Fulmer stated it would be tough to lose the senior class, as they all had great character and strong work habits, and had provided great leadership.
While fans were hurt over the loss in the bowl and Shuler’s decision, Coach Fulmer concerned himself with continuing to improve the program to take the next step. He focused on the strength and conditioning program, and before Spring practice hired John Stucky as head strength coach. It is in this writer’s opinion, that this was another upswing in the program. Stucky was simply one of the best at this time, and the strength and conditioning improvements were the center of the success the Vols had in the 1990’s under Coach Fulmer. Well, at least almost center. Because while he had hired Stucky, Fulmer went to work at what he did best, hitting the recruiting trail and putting together what would become one of the most successful classes in Tennessee history and include a future Tennessee and NFL legend.
Until next time.