From a close observer: Peyton says Joey was really good.
Return with me now to October 14, 1995, Tennessee versus Alabama, Legion Field in Birmingham. I don’t know why it was the second Saturday instead of the third.
The Tide had kicked off. The ball was on the 20. David Cutcliffe had schemed play No. 1 based on years of observation of how Alabama often lined up on defense to start games, two-deep shell.
Peyton Manning was under center with Jay Graham as running back. Two receivers were split left. Another was split right. The tight end was far right and off the line of scrimmage, an excellent distraction.
Joey Kent remembers: “Peyton and I kind of looked at each other. We saw the potential of the play before it happened, but obviously we didn’t know it would go 80 yards.”
Manning dropped back, looked medium right, spotted Joey running under control between an Alabama linebacker and a defensive back and hit him 18 yards down field.
Kent side-stepped a safety, then another. He shifted into a different gear going left on open grass toward the Tennessee sideline. He outran everybody. Really, nobody touched him.
“What did he do?” John Ward exclaimed on the Vol Network. “All he did was score! Joey Kent! Touchdown on play No. 1!”
Manning to Kent, 80 yards, just 12 seconds from the time the clock started until it stopped. The rout was on. The tide had turned.
Former wingback turned analyst Bill Anderson said Alabama’s three-man rush gave Manning time.
“He just caught Kent with kind of a deep turn-in. And when he got that ball, it was outrun everybody.”
Manning finished that evening with three touchdowns, including what is likely the most famous run of his career, a one-yard bootleg to the left pylon, aided by Graham’s fake plunge up the middle.
No. 6 Tennessee handed 11th-ranked Alabama its worst home loss in 38 years. Final score: Tennessee 41, Alabama 14.
Manning completed 20 of 29 for 301 yards, including six passes to Marcus Nash for 100 yards and two scores. Kent finished with five catches for 117. Graham gained 114 on 17 carries, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter just after Alabama had started to begin to think about coming to life
The Vols rolled up 496 yards of offense.
We dust off those memories in honor of Joey Kent, named a Southeastern Conference legend for the upcoming Weekend of Champions in Atlanta. Each school will be represented. Florida thinks quarterback Shane Matthews is the star. Ole Miss points to linebacker Patrick Willis. Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina was a pretty good running back.
Kent led the Vols in receiving for three straight seasons and shattered nearly every school record in his field of expertise. He remains the leader in receptions (183), receiving yards (2,814), receiving touchdowns (25), 100-yard games (15) and average yards per catch (18.8).
OK, it helped some to be a wideout in the Manning era. It helped to have hands almost as good as Larry Seivers. It helped to have speed somewhat comparable to Willie Gault. It helped to have Kent courage, fearless across the middle.
The numbers say Joey was, indeed, one of the greats in SEC history.
The Tennessee Titans drafted him in the second round. He had four seasons of NFL checks. He went to a Super Bowl. He caught 13 balls and scored one touchdown in his pro career. He said that part didn’t work out the way he planned.
The Joey Kent story goes back to the earlier 1990s, to a recruiting trip, defensive coach John Chavis and John Majors speeding along Highway 72 from Chattanooga to Huntsville. As was the custom, the area recruiter was briefing the boss before they arrived.
“We’re going to Johnson High School,” Chavis said. “There is a young man there that we’re recruiting, Joey Kent.”
Majors immediately wanted to know where Alabama and Auburn stood in the competition.
“Coach, they don’t know about him.’”
Majors snapped back about wasting half a day to bring him that far to recruit seconds.
Chavis assured Majors that Kent was not second-rate. He said wait until you see his highlights film, look at it and if you tell me no, we’ll get up and leave.
Majors took a look. Chavis recalls his first reaction.
“We’ve got to get this kid.”
Chavis said they didn’t have to get him, they had him.
“I worked with his daddy for four years.”
Joe Kent was a longtime assistant coach at Alabama A&M.
Previous Tennessee legends included Bob Johnson, Doug Atkins, Condredge Holloway, John Michels, Richmond Flowers, Steve Kiner, Steve DeLong, Stanley Morgan, John Majors.
Reggie White, Frank Emanuel, Larry Seivers, Chip Kell, Willie Gault, Doug Dickey, Heath Shuler, Al Wilson, Bobby Majors, Phillip Fulmer, Peerless Price, Peyton Manning and others.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com.