Tee formation: victory Football: Tennessee's Tee Martin has come a long way as a quarterback -- and he's taken his team right along with him.

January 01, 1999|By Don Markus and SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- His performance was barely noticed at the time, an afterthought in Tennessee's 42-17 defeat to Nebraska in last year's Orange Bowl.

The Cornhuskers and their fans were too busy celebrating a share of the national championship. The Volunteers and their fans were too caught up mourning the fact that All-America quarterback Peyton Manning had played his final college game.

But Tee Martin quietly had proved something.

"Being in there with the first-team offense against Nebraska's first-team defense, it gave the coaches a chance to see what I could do," Martin recalled here one evening after practice in early December. "It showed that I was going to be the starter [this season]."

Martin, then a sophomore, led the Volunteers on an 80-yard, eight-play drive for a fourth-quarter touchdown by completing all four passes he attempted for 53 yards and rushing once for 11 more. He finished off the drive with a 3-yard pass to Andy McCullough.

Meaningless?

Hardly.

It was the launch pad to Martin's performance this season and, perhaps, to Tennessee's bid for a national championship. Though his individual numbers might not be as perfect as they were that night a year ago, nobody can argue with the results.

Martin has led the Volunteers to their first unbeaten season in 60 years and to the first 12-0 record in school history. Now, he has a chance to do something that hasn't been accomplished here since 1951 -- lead Tennessee to the top of the college football world.

When the top-ranked Volunteers take on second-ranked Florida State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl Monday night in Tempe, Ariz., it will be with a confident quarterback who has done what Manning failed to do in his four years here.

"I don't think I've ever seen a quarterback come as far in one season as Tee has," former offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said before taking over as the head coach at Mississippi. "In terms of managing the game plan, in his passing efficiency, he's come miles."

Consider this: In his debut as a starter, against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, Martin completed just nine of 26 passes for 143 yards. But he managed to throw two for touchdowns, make a 55-yard run and help the Volunteers win, 34-33.

And this: In his second start, against then second-ranked Florida at home, Martin completed only seven of 20 passes for 64 yards, with one touchdown and an interception. But Tennessee beat the Gators, 20-17 in overtime, their first win over Florida in five years.

"I'm not worried about how it looks," Martin said after that game. "In 1992, we were three of nine for 94 yards against Florida and won. Two years ago, Peyton put up almost 500 yards and we lost. We did what we had to do to win."

Martin became more comfortable with the offense as the season went on, and his numbers reflected that. He finished his first year as a starter with 153 completions in 267 attempts for 2,162 yards. He threw 19 touchdown passes, to just six interceptions.

"He's done everything we expected him to," said senior Peerless Price, a all-Southeastern Conference second-team wide receiver. "The expectations on him were either enormous or not there at all. But we didn't plan on missing a beat [without Manning], and we haven't."

Price saw last summer what many other Tennessee players -- as well as their fans, coaches and the media -- witnessed this fall. On scorching afternoons that reached triple-digit temperatures and humidity to match, Martin and Price worked out up to five hours a day.

"One on one, seven-on-seven," recalled Price, who benefited from those workouts as well. "Me and him stayed out there one day when it was 106 degrees. He must have thrown over 100 passes a day."

Martin held together an offense that lost one of its biggest weapons, tailback Jamal Lewis, to a season-ending knee injury after three games. He had a couple of spectacular games along the way.

Perhaps the one that helped him escape the constant comparisons with Manning came against South Carolina. Martin completed his first 23 passes -- breaking the NCAA record for consecutive completions -- and finished 23 of 24 for 315 yards and four touchdowns.

"I think that changed some people's minds," said Martin, "because it showed I was more than just a running quarterback."

The only thing that didn't change was Martin himself.

As humble as Manning was, Martin never received a fraction of the hype his former road roommate did on a consistent basis. When someone asked him if anybody has named a child after him, as happened often with Manning, Martin laughed.

"Some lady told me she had named her dog after me," said Martin, whose family back in Mobile, Ala., still calls him by his given name, Tamaurice. "I don't need any kids named after me."

If anything, Martin saw what the attention Manning received did to the rest of the team. He saw how other players tired of the media following Manning as if he were some rock star and ignoring them as if they were merely his roadies.

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