The column started innocently and honestly enough. Way back in 2000, I settled in front of my computer at Tennessee's student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, a sophomore aspiring writer who knew nothing about the magnitude of what I was going to do.
I penned an opinion piece on sophomore forward Ron Slay's slow start. To date, he'd averaged 6.5 points and was losing minutes to less talented teammates.
The day it ran, Slay enjoyed his breakout game of the season, scoring 16 points off the bench in leading the Vols to an 85-59 win. As I listened to the postgame show, Slay couldn't say "Brad Shepard" enough.
He said he'd taped the article in his locker to motivate him and wrote my name on the inside of his headband. Columnists from around the state wrote about Slay (and me), and Slay helped UT surge to the NCAA tournament.
Much of the quality writing I've done since then has been eaten by newspaper archives, but that poorly constructed column remains. I don’t mind its warts. The story taught me that people listen to what you have to say, so you had better take care with your words. Though it wasn’t the best article, those lessons served me well through my career.
I worked in college as a correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and The Tennessean. Following internships at The Tennessean and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I covered the Tennessee Titans for The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., and moved on to a job with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
I moved home to start a family and assume a nine-to-five job in 2006. Sports writing remained in my blood, so I continued blogging about the Vols along with covering minor league baseball for The Huntsville Times.
Now, I'm excited to get started at Bleacher Report.
Best Athlete or Coach to Interview
Professional golfer and Masters champion Adam Scott.
I had the opportunity to write several articles about him when he was just getting his start on the PGA Tour, and he was always accessible and incredibly humble.
Once during a rainout at the TPC at Sugarloaf, Scott delayed his ride from the course to sit down with me for 20 minutes in the players' locker room for a story. I wrote about him again during the following year's Masters as well as a couple of times afterward. Those particular meetings and the manner in which Scott conducted himself stuck with me. I cheered for him as he won this year's Masters.
Former Vol and Atlanta Falcon Will Overstreet was easily my favorite football player to quote. He was a go-to player during my days covering the team, along with longtime NFL cornerback Jabari Greer. They never made it seem as though they were burdened answering questions.
Best Player Covered
Eric Berry. I had the opportunity to cover the Kansas City Chiefs star during his junior season at Tennessee—his final year of college. That season, he earned the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back.
Though his two interceptions that season were dwarfed by the combined 12 he registered in his first two years in Knoxville, Berry showed his versatility on that Monte Kiffin-coached defense. He proved he could be effective in Cover 2 sets, and his 89 tackles—17 more than his sophomore season—were a product of his playing in the box to help UT's lack of linebacker depth.
Simply put, he was the best athlete I've ever seen in person and a player everybody on the opposing team had to account for every time he was on the field.
Most Memorable Game Covered
This one is easy: the "Hobnail Boot" game in 2001. The Vols were ranked sixth in the nation going against the unranked Georgia Bulldogs in Mark Richt's first season. It was a machine-gun finish that ended with two crazy momentum swings as I stood on the sideline ready to write about the victorious Vols.
That wasn't to be.
With 44 seconds remaining, Travis Stephens took a screen pass 62 yards for a touchdown to put Tennessee ahead 24-20 in a deafening Neyland Stadium. The Vols elected to squib-kick the ensuing kickoff, and freshman quarterback David Greene marched UGA 59 yards in 39 seconds for the stadium-silencing win.
A pass to wide-open fullback Verron Haynes in the end zone, on a play called P-44 Haynes, provided the game-winner for UGA.
According to ESPN's David Ching, this was Georgia legendary announcer Larry Munson's call:
My God Almighty, did you see what he did? David Greene just straightened up, and we snuck the fullback over! We just dumped it over! 26-24! We just stepped on their face with a hobnail boot and broke their nose! We just crushed their face!
Will Justin Worley Be Able to Keep the Starting-Quarterback Job?
No. We've seen the junior's limitations in spot situations during his first two years in Knoxville, and while he is probably the best option expected to make the fewest mistakes right now, there are more talented players behind him.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs all had shining moments during fall camp, and it would not be surprising to see at least two of them get game reps early.
Given UT's difficult two-game swing at Oregon and at Florida in consecutive weeks, I'd not be a bit surprised to see the Vols change starters by midseason.
Who Is the Vols' Best Weapon on Offense in 2013?
This is a boring answer, but it's also the right one: the offensive line.
The simple fact is that Tennessee doesn't have any proven playmakers at quarterback or wide receiver, and the two running backs expected to get the bulk of the carries—Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane—are good runners who simply aren't dynamic enough with the ball in their hands.
Everything UT does this year on offense will be dictated by controlling the tempo of drives, and that begins with an offensive line that could see all five of its starters play in the NFL. Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja'Wuan James are the biggest names on a star-studded unit.
What Are the 3 biggest Changes We Can Expect to See in Butch Jones' 1st Season?
1. You'll see a football team that is slimmer and faster along the lines and bulkier in other places such as linebacker, according to this June depth chart scrutinized by Evan Woodbery GoVolsXtra. The offensive line is especially lighter, preparing to run offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's up-tempo style. The biggest mover is defensive tackle and NFL prospect Daniel McCullers, who is listed at 6'8" and 351 pounds on UT's roster. Last year, he was 377 pounds and had arrived in Knoxville closer to 400.
2. Another major change will be the move back to a 4-3 base defense. No Tennessee fan wants to relive the nightmarish Sal Sunseri season in Knoxville in which the Vols switched to a 3-4 and promptly had one of the worst defenses in school history. While there are still questions on that side, the battle cry around these parts is, "It can't be worse!"
3. It's going to be a big change for UT to just look over an offense that doesn't feature skill players like first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson; second-round pick Justin Hunter; or other NFL talents such as quarterback Tyler Bray, tight end Mychal Rivera and wide receiver Zach Rogers.
What Are the Keys to Success for the Vols Defense in 2013?
The first thing Tennessee has to do is keep players healthy in the back seven. There just isn't that much depth at linebacker or in the secondary, and if anybody like junior linebacker A.J. Johnson or junior cornerback Justin Coleman goes down, the next man up isn't as talented.
Injuries already are affecting the pass rush. According to Ryan Callahan of GoVols247, freshman defensive end Corey Vereen and senior defensive end Jacques Smith have been ruled out of Saturday's opener against Austin Peay, and outside linebacker Curt Maggitt is still limited while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last October.
As putrid as UT was in that area last year, the Vols need everybody available who can apply heat to the opposing teams' passers.
Without a sustained pass rush, that opens up Tennessee's young cornerbacks to get picked on. True freshman Cameron Sutton will start opposite Coleman, and Malik Foreman—another true freshman—will play plenty as well.
The maturation of those corners and UT's pass rush will determine how much improved the Vols are on defense.
2013 Season Prediction for Tennessee
There are just too many questions. This year needs to be about finding the quarterback and playmakers for the future and establishing the foundation for what Butch Jones wants to build.
It would endear a fanbase for Jones to lead the Vols to an upset win over a conference rival, and that very well may happen.
But since I believe the window for this team is anywhere from five to seven wins. I'll split the difference and say Tennessee will go 6-6 with a bowl win.