by Kevin Crowe
Above the field, a small city of screaming, rabid fans will take their places â"a horde of orange-clad warriors. For the next three hours it'll be a melee, with all the ferocity and wanton malice of post-apocalyptic barbarism, like something beyond Thunderdome.
Neyland Stadium can be a religious experience, a path toward Valhalla where only the sport's most loyal acolytes can lose themselves, slipping back into the primitive just for a while. These seething, crazed demons always come to life, fouling the skies with their orchestrated war cries, set to the tune of a 200-piece marching bandâ.
But right now, the stands are nearly empty. There are maybe a few hundred fans spread about the western sideline. Only a handful wear orange. Today's scrimmage sounds like boot camp, and so far nothing is a sure thing. No one knows how well this team will stack up until they line up against the California Golden Bears on Saturday, September 1.
What're y'all standing around for?
We ain't workin' hard for nuthin'!
You got to get it right! Get! It! Right!
Queen's â“Fat Bottomed Girlsâ” plays through the stadium's loudspeakers, barely audible over the shouts from the field. It's all happening at once, every aspect of the game broken down into exercises, each practiced as if it were a mantra, over and over. Blocking drills at the south endzone. The QBs are warming up near midfield, looking bored, their backs slightly slumped as they go through the motions. Balls are kicked overhead, most falling well short of the goalpost.
Before the pageantry of the '07 season can begin, one question remains: Will the offense be able to produce with only a few returning receivers who have real game experience? There's always hope, a staid belief that the new superstars will be discovered out on the field.
Two refrigerator-sized hulks head toward a newly formed huddle on the 50-yard line: numbers 80 and 86, the Cottam brothers from Memphis. Both are physical enough to knock safeties flat on their duffs. Both are fast enough to run deep routes and stretch the field.
At 6'8â”, they look like they could flatten any secondary with a full head of steam.
Brad Cottam (86) returns for his senior year after catching 14 passes and starting in four out of the last five games in '06, averaging nearly 13 yards per catch. Then he topped off his season with a 25-yard grab in the Outback Bowl.
Big Brad Cottam was expected to have a stellar year at the beginning of training camp. The tight ends, we've been told for weeks now, are going to be an integral part of the offense this fall. Brad, along with his younger brother, Jeff, and the team's leading returning receiver, Chris Brown (28), need to take the pressure off of a very young and inexperienced crew of wide receivers.
All eyes in the stadium turn toward the huddle. Everything else has come to a halt. Second- and third-string players watch from the sidelines. Numbers 80 and 86 line up on opposite sides of the field. Down! The defense quickly makes a shift, trying to sniff out the QB's plan of attack. Set! Fingers tense into tight fists, and slowly release, nerves on edge before that one sweet sound. Hut! Pressure from the defense comes right up the middle. The greenshirt scrambles to his left, sending the ball soaring downfield. Nowhere near either of the Cottam brothers. Not this time, and they line it up again.
Nice job. Be good again!
You got to make him play!
Be ready. Be ready.
Fresh set of downs! Same group!
"I got past the safety,â” Brad Cottam recalls. â“I was in the endzone. Eric [Ainge] made a good pass. I turned around, and I caught it. Tucked the ball into my right hand, and kind of naturally put my left hand behind me. I didn't need to, it was just a natural reaction.â”
With the sheer force of a 240-pound body crashing down, his left wrist took the brunt of the fall during a scrimmage last week. Two ligaments were torn, the result of carpal bone dislocation. Brad was taken into the operating room that night.... and just like that, the Vols needed to start tweaking their game plan.
â“It hurt pretty bad. I didn't know it was going to be this bad,â” Brad goes on. â“All I can do now is wait. There's not a lot of rehab I can do right now. But I hope I can come back and play at the end of the season.â”
Sophomore Jeff Cottam, who is more or less a clone of his older brother, will move up to join senior Chris Brown as the team's most active tight-end receivers.
â“I was planning on playing a lot and showing what I can do,â” Jeff says matter-of-factly, maintaining a stoic demeanor in light of his brother's injury. Right now, his future is in his hands, and the young tight end doesn't want to take that responsibility lightly. He adds: â“Each tight end needs to step it up.â”
Jeff played in every game last season but has yet to catch a pass. His eyes are focused now, staring off toward the field. In his mind, he's ready to play. Just give him the ball.
â“This is the perfect opportunity for [Jeff],â” Brad says. â“He's gonna get a lot of reps now.
â“It's unfortunate what happened to me, but now he can step in and show what he can do. I feel real good about him being there.â”
It's just business as usual. There's a strange kind of beauty at a college football game. Where there seems to be cruelty, there's also humility. To hear Brad Cottam talk about his injuryâ"an injury that may ruin his senior seasonâ"you'd think he's totally at peace with his fate. He never complains about what happened to him during a scrimmage. He only talks about possibility, not only for his team, but also for his little brother.
At the stadium, where some may see a giant, vapid spectacle, there's always theater, both on and off the fieldâ"some of the most honest and heartfelt drama to ever find its way on television. It's theater, perhaps nothing more, but definitely nothing less.
"They're ready to hit somebody else, and see what kind of team we got,â” head coach Phil Fulmer says to a crowd of reporters who have gathered on the practice field. A small bouquet of recording devices is shoved into his face. â“We want to get out of this heat we've been having and go play.â”
Nothing can shake the steadfast optimism held by the members of this team, kids who have sacrificed countless hours of their days to mold themselves into modern day gladiators. Critics and naysayers are never far away, either. Brad and Jeff Cottam have heard it all. â“I think we're gonna be real good,â” Jeff says. â“I don't think there's anyone on our schedule that we can't beat if we play our best.â”
Before a game, Jeff isn't boisterous. He's reserved, almost meditative. â“I like to listen quietly by myself,â” the young tight end explains, â“and think about what I have to do.â” There will be plenty to think about this season, as the Vols head to sunny southern California for the season's opener. Returning eight players from its potent offense last year, the Golden Bears will be looking to make a statement.
If Jeff can maintain his focus, the youngster should have plenty of chances prove his mettle by keeping the chains moving and keeping the opposing offense off the field.
â“Obviously he's big,â” Brad says. â“He's one of the most physical guys on the team. And everybody feels a lot more confident about his catching ability.â”
Jeff has developed a much softer touch when he gets the ball, a presence on the field that may one day be as dominant as Jason Witten, a former Vol tight end who now plays for Dallas. No matter where the ball was thrown, Witten could always find a way to get his hands around it.
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe will continue to run two-tight-end sets, giving Jeff ample opportunity to test his nerves against a very tough schedule. The fear is real, and out of sheer necessity, Jeff Cottam has had to come into his own pretty fast.
â“I try to block out those 100,000 people and focus on the game.â” Jeff tries to explain what it's like out on the field: â“In the middle of the play, I can't hear anything. I'm just focused on what I'm doing. I hear the pads and everybody hitting each otherâ.
â“It's pretty awesomeâ. When the play's over, you can hear the fans cheer. You realize that everybody's there. It's that big a deal.â”
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