When he first saw it, he must have smiled. He had been waiting for it for so long, and he must have gotten a big, goofy grin on his face that he's probably been wearing around campus for the past week.
It was just three words that meant the weight of the No. 4 team of the country had been partially lifted off quarterback Casey Clausen's shoulders:
"Kelley Washington (probable)."
For two games, Clausen was forced to trudge through defenses, carrying an offense full of inexperienced weapons with him. Tony Brown was impressive. Cedric Houston showed the most potential of a Tennessee running back since Jamal Lewis. Jason Witten showed his versatility in dealing with double-teams.
But No. 15 changes everything for Clausen's young offense.
The double-teams will no longer be directed toward Witten. Brown won't have to worry about Florida's top corner, Keiwan Ratliff. The Gators won't be able to put eight men in the box to stop Houston, Jabari Davis and the rest of Tennessee's stable of tailbacks. All because of one simple reason.
The SEC is terrified of Washington.
And Florida will be the first team to deal with that terror Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he creates more mismatches than Blind Date host Roger Lodge. He has too much strength for a single cornerback to cover him, and he has the speed to embarrass linebackers and strong safeties.
And one more thing - he's well-rested. Washington has not played since Tennessee's 45-17 waxing of Michigan at the Citrus Bowl in January, and his three-week vacation to start off the 2002 season should have him ready to play, at least according to a top college football analyst.
"We're ready to see him out there," Tennessee strong safety Julian Battle said. "He had two weeks off, and now he's going to have the extra week off. He should be well-rested and ready to blow past the Florida defenders."
The Tennessee defense may be more ready to see Washington on the field than Clausen. In Tennessee's first two games, the Volunteer defense made two impressive statements, giving up a total of 10 points, but Clausen's offense looked very much like the nickname Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer gave to his receiving corps. A mix between the Bad News Bears and the Little Rascals.
47 points against Wyoming at "Neyland" Coliseum ... not a bad start.
26 points against MTSU at home two weeks ago ... yikes.
Zero of those 26 points were scored by Tennessee's offense in the second half. The mistakes that plagued Tennessee in the second half were due in large part to the Vols' inexperience.
While there's no doubt Washington has been a leader to Brown, Montrell Jones and the rest of UT's receiving corps on the practice field, it doesn't make up for the fact that he hasn't been in the huddle for the first two wins. Having two experienced, talented leaders (Clausen and Washington) at the skill positions will make a huge difference in the efficiency of the Vols' offense.
And it just happens that Washington is back in the lineup when there's a huge difference in the level of competition from the previous two games. Coincidence? Probably.
But Washington loves to be in the spotlight, and a game against No. 10 Florida on national television is a game he (and dozens of NFL scouts) have been giddy about for months.
Throw in an uncharacteristically weak Gator secondary, and cutting off Washington's arms couldn't keep him out of the end zone Saturday.
Senior free safety Todd Johnson will likely be tattooed to No. 15 for the duration of the game, as well as the 5-foot-10 Ratliff, which opens up the field for Brown, Witten, Houston, Davis ...
Needless to say, Clausen isn't the only one with a sheepish smile plastered onto his mug this week.
It's amazing how much three little words can mean.
Clausen unburden of woes
Published: Tue Sep 17, 2002 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 04:28 p.m.