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Tennessee Football has history of battling key Vols injuries

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Take a deep breath and don’t get overly upset, frustrated or downtrodden about what could be in store for Tennessee’s football team this season. It may not be good.

There is a real possibility that the Vols could go from one of the most exciting and talked about teams in 2022 to having one of its most disappointing seasons in modern-era college football history. No predictions here, but it could happen. Here’s why.

Look at what the Vols have dealt with already. They’ve lost center Cooper Mays, who was an All-SEC player and, given Tennessee’s depth behind him, one of the most valuable players on the team. Mays was a leader, a great player and brought a sense of toughness that the Vols didn’t have when they lost to Florida on Saturday night. He also handled many of the offensive line calls so it’s no surprise that the Vols struggled so many times at the line of scrimmage with pre-snap miscommunication.

Tennessee also lost linebacker Keenan Pili for an extended period of time, perhaps the entire season. Like Mays, he was in charge of making sure the Vols were in the right position before the snap. It’s no surprise that Tennessee’s defenders were out of position so often against the Gators. Looking for reasons why the Vols missed tackles? Being out of position was the main reason. Pili could have prevented that.

The Vols have gone into seasons with high expectations before and fallen short due to injuries. There was 2002 in which Tennessee lost one of its best players and perhaps even a better leader when linebacker Kevin Burnett went down with a knee injury in a September win over Wyoming. Burnett was lost for the season, as was defensive end Constantine Ritzman, who was injured in preseason camp.

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“It was a devastating loss, something that can’t be overcome with personnel shifts,” former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said after the Burnett injury. “Kevin Burnett had a great work ethic. Losing him and Constantin Ritzmann has been a staggering blow to our defense.”

The Vols were coming off of an SEC East title in 2001 and nearly played for a national championship had it not been for a loss to LSU in the national championship game. Expectations were understandably high for the Vols in 2002. After losing Burnett, Tennessee finished the season with a 8-5 record.

There have been other injuries that the Vols have overcome and another that shaped Tennessee football history. The Vols lost running back Jamal Lewis early in the 1998 season and went on to go 13-0 and win a national championship thanks to a deep roster of tailbacks led by Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. Then, in 1994, the Vols lost starting quarterback Jerry Colquitt, which opened the door for Peyton Manning to receive early playing time and become an all-time SEC legend.

Now, I’m sure many of you reading this will think I’m swooping in like Batman to defend Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. Others will say every team deals with injuries, which is true. However, key injuries and “just” injuries are two different things. The Vols have lost two leaders on each side of the ball that were in charge of making everyone else better. Without them, the Vols have looked worse than last season. Still, it’s only September, but there’s a harsh reality staring the Vols in the face.

Tennessee’s defense missed tackles against Florida because they were out of position more times than not. The Vols were bad on the offensive line because they missed one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC and his leadership in clutch situations when the Vols struggled in pre-snap situations. It’s also worth noting that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said that running back Dylan Sampson was banged up last week. The sophomore is one of the Vols’ most electric playmakers.

Now, I am by no means saying that the season is over and the Vols can’t still win a championship. Sure they can. However, that doesn’t seem to be the path that Tennessee is currently on. I’m also not defending Heupel, who has made some questionable moves in and out of games. However, key injuries can derail a season early if they’re suffered to key players, especially in this day and age of the transfer portal in which talented players are spread out like the last bit of peanut butter in the jar.

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