TEMPE, Ariz. - Tennessee fans have just one word for offensive coordinator Randy Sanders: "Encore!"
Sanders will direct the Vols from the skybox in tonight's Fiesta Bowl, calling the plays against a Nebraska unit that ranks in the top six nationally in all four major defensive categories.
Sanders, 34, sizzled in his debut as UT's offensive coordinator in last year's national championship game. Tennessee piled up 392 yards against a Florida State unit that entered the game ranked No. 1 in total defense.
Sanders surprised many with his daring calls and innovative schemes against the Seminoles. Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin said he had expected nothing less.
"Coach Sanders always had the ideas and the smarts; he's a very intelligent man," said Martin, who accounted for 297 yards against FSU. "Right now, he's at his peak. He's making the right calls at the right times and giving the athletes a chance to make plays."
Many Vols' fans had feared the worst when former offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe left UT to take the Ole Miss job just hours after the 1998 SEC Championship Game.
Cutcliffe's decision to leave immediately put Vols' coach Phillip Fulmer on the spot. Fulmer, himself a former offensive coordinator, turned to then-running backs coach Sanders immediately. The "interim" tag Sanders wore for the bowl game was a formality.
"Obviously, Randy did very well," Fulmer said. "The staff and the players have really responded to him."
UT defensive coordinator John Chavis was among those pushing Sanders for the offensive coordinator job when Cutcliffe left.
"Randy is a great football coach, that's all there is to it," said Chavis, who sits beside Sanders in the coaching box. "Just look at the numbers."
Tennessee led the SEC in scoring (31.6 points per game) and rushing (191.3 yards per game) despite a rash of injuries that hampered Martin, Heisman Trophy candidate Jamal Lewis, and go-to receiver Cedrick Wilson.
"Coach Sanders was in a tough situation," said Martin, who has always had a close friendship with Sanders. "But he's very calm and keeps everything in perspective."
Despite his relative youth, Sanders has as good a grip on Tennessee's system as Fulmer. Sanders played quarterback for the Vols from 1984 through 1988 before joining the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1989.
"Randy grew up in this system," offensive line coach Mike Barry said. "He's coached receivers, running backs and now he's the coordinator. Everyone respects that."
When Sanders was promoted to offensive coordinator he lost his duties as recruiting coordinator. But it has become apparent that he has not lost his recruiting skills. This year's Tennessee recruiting class features commitments from two of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
Casey Clausen, who signed with the Vols earlier this month, said he liked Sanders' no-nonsense approach.
"Coach Sanders is a straight-forward guy who tells you how it is," said Clausen, who chose UT over Colorado and Notre Dame. "Being one of the first quarterbacks he'll coach is big to me. It's nice playing for someone who can understand things from the quarterback's point of view. He's been there."