By Josh Ward
What was Tennessee going to do without Jamal Lewis?
The year was 1998. The Vols’ star running back had just suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of the season against Auburn.
Tennessee was off to a great start that season with a dramatic win at Syracuse and an unforgettable overtime win against Florida.
But that was WITH Lewis, who was averaging close to seven yards a carry that season.
Now arguably Tennessee’s most talented player was out with a road trip to play top-10 Georgia coming up next. The Vols needed to figure out something quick.
Figure it out they did. Travis Henry and Travis Stephens stepped up to rush for a combined 160 yards against Georgia that week and helped Tennessee finish the season 13-0 to win a national championship.
Then-coach Phillip Fulmer challenged “the whole team” to step up in Lewis’s absence, and the whole team responded.
Fast forward to September 2022.
Tennessee’s star wide receiver Cedric Tillman suffered an ankle injury in the third game of the season against Akron, keeping him out for the Florida game and the next three games to follow (the Vols hope Tillman can return this week).
How would the loss of quarterback Hendon Hooker’s top target affect Josh Heupel’s explosive offense?
We now have our answer.
The offense hasn’t skipped a beat, and several players have stepped up in Tillman’s absence — most notably Jalin Hyatt.
The junior receiver has 769 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, which leads the nation, this season and turned in one of the most memorable performances in Tennessee football history with his five-touchdown, 207-yard performance against Alabama on Oct. 17.
Hyatt became a Tennessee legend in that win against Alabama, according to a former UT receiver who knows something about the subject.
Hyatt’s emergence this season is a reminder of the possibility of the unknown, just like we saw 24 years ago in Knoxville.
We didn’t know the 1998 Tennessee football team was so well equipped to replace Lewis, one of the nation’s best players who seemed irreplaceable at the time.
Just like we didn’t know Hyatt would take off and become a leading contender for the Biletnikoff Award after Tillman went down.
But those guys in the locker room probably had a good idea. And confidence from their coaching staffs helped make it happen.
“We just continue to plug,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said last week, “and the end result is what the end result is going to be. But what Jalin has done is a true example of what this program, what we have worked so hard as a whole group to build here, which is a process-based program that continues to develop young people.”
The development has shown, both in individual players’ performances and results on the field.
Tennessee had to replace Matthew Butler and Cade Mays, UT’s top linemen from a year ago, after they left for the NFL. Omari Thomas, Gerald Mincey and JJ Crawford stepped up to fill the void.
Just like Hyatt and Ramel Keyton have helped replace Velus Jones Jr. from last year and Tillman during his absence this season.
Tennessee has a lot of work to do to accomplish what the 1998 team did, of course, but the Vols have established themselves as real contenders with a 7-0 start and wins against four top 25 teams.
That is thanks to Hooker; thanks to Hyatt; thanks to the much-improved offensive line and timely defensive plays; it’s thanks to a new foundation supporting Tennessee’s football program.
Who knew we’d have this conversation two months into the season, despite the loss of one of the Vols’ best players before the team’s most importance stretch on the schedule?
No one knew Tennessee would be here. But the Vols’ players and coaches probably had a good feeling.