Four players who each put up four spectacular individual seasons this decade, and who have each gone on to reasonable levels of success in the NFL. Two played together in one of the most dangerous Tennessee passing attacks of all-time (we're skipping tight end in the voting, because we think Jason Witten's got it covered). One played with Peyton Manning and earned a championship ring before becoming the go-to guy at the turn of the century. And one waited three years to get going - a pattern he's also followed in the NFL - but his final season was one for the ages.
Cedrick Wilson, Donte' Stallworth, Kelley Washington, and Robert Meachem. Between them are more than 5,000 career receiving yards, and four great individual performances in the last ten years. As continue our look at the Tennessee Football All-Decade Team, we again examine the candidates and leave the final vote up to you...
Here's another guy that this vote requires some separation with. The Memphis native played as a freshman with Peyton Manning before moving into a starting role during the 1998 National Championship season, in which he had key touchdown receptions against Georgia and in the SEC Championship Game. With Peerless Price's graduation, Wilson became Tennessee's go-to receiver in 1999, playing again with Tee Martin.
But in 2000, Martin was out and Wilson was left with the group of Joey Matthews, AJ Suggs and eventually freshman Casey Clausen. In the first half of the year, the Vols ran a ton behind Travis Henry and struggled to a 2-3 start. But once Clausen was given the keys, the Vol offense exploded, and so did Wilson. He finished the 2000 season with 62 catches for 681 yards, and a decade best 12 touchdowns. Wilson was taken in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the 49ers, but found his best success with the Steelers: he caught two touchdowns in the playoffs during Pittsburgh's run to the 2006 Super Bowl.
Donte' Stallworth & Kelley Washington
Their story has to be told together, because their one season of great play featured both men side by side. Stallworth was a guy who could never stay healthy, constantly banged up with this or that for his first two seasons. Coaches raved about his talent, but we never really saw it. In the first game of the 2001 season, Stallworth caught a touchdown pass and showed flashes, but broke his hand on a late game onside kick attempt by Syracuse. Stallworth would miss the next three games, and with Wilson having graduated the year before, a huge void appeared in Tennessee's passing game.
Enter Kelley Washington. After trying minor league baseball for four years, Washington enrolled at Tennessee as a 22 year old freshman. Little was expected of Washington because of the fact that he'd been out of football for four years, though his 6'3" 218 lbs frame made you hope he got readjusted to the game sooner than later. The Vols beat Syracuse, then slogged their way to a 13-3 win over Arkansas in a weather delayed game with torrential downpours, meaning Tennessee ran Travis Stephens 41 times and passed very little. Washington was frustrated with his role and was vocal about it through two games, and Tennessee fans wondered what exactly this 22 year old freshman had done to make us care.
9/11 pushed the Florida game back to December, and then #14 LSU came calling. And Kelley Washington responded with the best single game wide receiver performance of not just the decade, but Tennessee Football history.
Washington caught 11 passes for 256 yards, including a 70 yard touchdown reception that game Tennessee a 19-7 lead in the third quarter. The 256 yards are still a school record, but perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 9 of Washington's 11 catches went for first downs. Late in the game with the Vols trying to seal it, Tennessee called timeout on a third and long. Everyone in the stadium - you and me, Clausen and Washington, Fulmer and Saban - knew where the ball was going. And it didn't matter - Washington pulled in another first down reception, and the Vols got the win.
When Stallworth returned to the lineup against Alabama, Tennessee went from dangerous to lethal. #4 had 5 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in his return, #15 added 4 catches for 93 yards, and when you also get 7 for 91 from Jason Witten, how do you stop that?
The Vols continued to roll through the 2001 season with only one loss, to Georgia in a game played without Stallworth. Against Kentucky, the Vols needed all the points they could get, and Stallworth's dominance was never more apparent: UK simply had no one who could cover him, and Tennessee erased a 21-0 lead and stayed with Kentucky's pace by throwing deep to Stallworth repeatedly. Donte' finished with 8 catches for 159 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 38-35 Tennessee win.
Adding to their accomplishments, Stallworth and Washington got so much attention from the Florida defense in the epic December battle to close the regular season, Travis Stephens had a field day and Bobby Graham caught 7 passes for 71 yards. Their presence alone helped Tennessee win. Kelley Washington would return the favor in the SEC Championship Game, catching 9 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown...but it would be Stallworth with the game's most costly fumble, with the Vols down 24-20 but driving in the 4th quarter, that helped LSU pull the upset.
In their final performance together, the '01 Vol passing attack was at their combined best, against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl: 8 for 119 for Stallworth, 6 for 70 and 2 TDs for Washington, and 6 for 125 and a TD for Witten. This unit was unbelievable. Stallworth won All-SEC honors, while Washington was a freshman All-American.
Everyone assumed the 22 year old Washington would go pro, where his 6'3" frame would make him a first round draft pick. And everyone assumed Stallworth, who had never been healthy enough to play an entire season, would come back for his senior season. But instead, the duo pulled the double switch: Stallworth went early, running a 4.29 at the combine and being drafted 13th overall. And Washington stayed one more year, citing the fact that his mother wanted to see him keep playing in Knoxville.
In 2002, Spurrier was gone and the Vols were the overwhelming favorite to fill the void at the top of the SEC. Kelley Washington was a Heisman candidate, and fond of telling people that he was the best wide receiver in college football. He was arrogant, and we loved it.
"The Future" - a self-appointed nickname - missed the first two games of '02 with a sprained knee. He couldn't help Tennessee hold onto the ball in the rain against Florida, and though he picked up 197 yards in a win against Rutgers and helped the Vols beat Arkansas in six overtimes, his Tennessee career came to a sudden end at Georgia the following week. After Casey Clausen went down with a shoulder injury in overtime against Arkansas, KDub was slung down on the sideline at Georgia and injured his neck, requiring surgery and ending his season. And just like that, "The Future" was over. As the '02 season continued to spiral downward, Washington fell out of favor with Vol fans.
KDub has been in the NFL since 2003, only now finding real success with Baltimore this season, at age 30. Stallworth was a valuable commodity as a secondary target for several NFL teams, but is currently suspended for the 2009 season following an alcohol-related vehicular manslaughter charge.
Meachem followed Stallworth's career path, and followed it well: banged up in his first two seasons, including the frustrating 2005 year in which he was supposed to become the team's go-to guy. But Meachem put all that to rest, and put it to rest immediately, in 2006.
Against #9 Cal and playing in David Cutcliffe's offense for the first time, the Oklahoma native exploded for 182 yards and two touchdowns. He did it again the next week, as the Vols needed all of his 115 yards and both of his 2 TDs to beat Air Force.
Meachem was consistently great in 2006. At Georgia, he caught 7 passes for 98 yards and a score. 6 for 87 in a win over Alabama. 5 for 106 in a win at South Carolina. But with Erik Ainge injured, it was against LSU that he turned in his greatest performance. With the Vols running an offense that could best be described as "Okay Crompton, you throw it up, and Meachem will run under it", the junior wide out made not one, but two spectacular in traffic catches against a great LSU secondary, both for touchdowns. Without Meachem, the Vols are never even in the eventual 28-24 loss.
For the year, Meachem finished with 71 receptions for 1,298 yards. The 71 catches are third all-time at Tennessee. And the 1,298 yards is the school record for single season receiving yards, and the best season of the decade by almost 300 yards.
You've also probably seen Meachem most recently featured in the Saints' offense, where after staying in the shadows for two years with injuries and inconsistency, Meachem has exploded, again, in his third year.
- Wilson '00: 62 catches, 681 yards, 12 TDs
- Stallworth '01: 49 catches, 940 yards, 10 TDs
- Washington '01: 64 catches, 1,010 yards, 5 TDs
- Meachem '06: 71 catches, 1,298 yards, 11 TDs