Carl Pickens was such a threat for Tennessee football as they emerged onto the national scene for good in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the coaches didn’t know where to put him. He was just so good on both sides of the ball. And he saved all of his biggest moments for the biggest games.
In 1989, Pickens was a wide receiver but converted to defensive back to give the Vols much needed help there. With the team at 6-1 and needing to win every game to get a share of the SEC Championship and stay in the national picture, Pickens came away with an interception in, well, every game. He then registered an interception in the Cotton Bowl against the Arkansas Razorbacks.
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Pickens also had a kickoff returned for a touchdown against the LSU Tigers in 1989 in Death Valley, and yes, that was the difference in the game. So his big game exploits on both sides of the ball were visible early.
Then came 1990. As a full-time wide receiver that year, Pickens had big plays in numerous key games. He caught a touchdown in their season-opening tie against the eventual national champion Colorado Buffaloes. Then he was part of the onslaught against the Florida Gators that year. And he caught a touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl comeback against the Virginia Cavaliers.
On top of that, even in a loss against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Pickens was the one to keep the game alive by recovering a late onside kick. He continued his efforts into 1991.
That year, he dominated in the Vols’ final game in the annual rivalry against the Auburn Tigers with four catches for over 170 yards and two touchdowns. Then, showing his versatility again, came the Notre Dame game. He didn’t have a touchdown. But Pickens ran his defender all the way out of the back of the end zone on the screen play that won the Vols the game and clinched their comeback.
Everybody remembers Andy Kelly keeping teams in games during that time and working miracles. Kelly was indeed clutch, but the real hero was Pickens. He always came through for Tennessee football, and that’s why he’s so high on this list.