This was to have been the most brilliant autumn Knoxville had known in a long time, a season in which the Vols followed their Heisman Trophy quarterback to the school's first national championship in 43 years. Then the aforementioned savior, Heath Shuler, gave the team the stiff-arm, and suddenly the choruses of Rocky Top went dead across the entire state.
"With Heath, we would have been a lot of people's choice to be Number 1," says Tennessee kicker John Becksvoort.
Without Heath, life in Knoxville is still far from rocky bottom. Even as Shuler was announcing last January that he would skip his senior year to enter the NFL, coach Phillip Fulmer was reeling in one of the finest recruiting classes in the country, led by quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Branndon Stewart. And though Fulmer has pleaded with alumni not to expect too much from the two freshmen, the coach has scarcely been able to contain himself. In July he said, "I will admit that I can't wait to get them out on the practice field."
Neither Manning nor Stewart—nor Peyton Stewart, as the locals call them—will start the first game. That job will go to Jerry Colquitt, a senior who has shown Hashes of excellence—he threw for four touchdowns in '93 on only 26 passing attempts—but whose opportunities have come so rarely that last fall, he considered quitting the team. He remained because near season's end, Shuler confided to Colquitt, his onetime roommate, that he was leaning toward turning pro. "I've always known I could do the job," says Colquitt. "I just needed an opening."
Under Colquitt, the offense, which averaged 40 points per game last year, will become more conservative. That will be made easier by the return of all five starters on the offensive line and by 6'1", 218-pound senior tailback James (Little Man) Stewart, who needs 991 yards to become the school's alltime leading rusher. On defense Fulmer has more concerns, the most nettlesome being a line that lost all four first-stringers.
The Vols, who face UCLA, Georgia and Florida in the first three weeks, will be challenged from the get-go. "I like the schedule," says Colquitt. "I want to put people at ease about my abilities right away. A lot of people will be watching."