Tight end Austin Denney was known more for actions than words during his playing career at Tennessee, but former Vols quarterback Dewey Warren could always count on hearing the same phrase from Denney before each snap.
"We'd call a play, didn't matter if it was called for him or not, but when we'd break the huddle he'd always run by me and say, 'I'll be open,' " Warren said. "And you know what? Nine times out of 10, he was.
"Yep, big number 84; We called him the Big Kahuna.''
Denney earned All-American honors at Tennessee in 1966 with Warren as his quarterback before going on to a five-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. He'll be honored posthumously with his induction into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 5 at the Knoxville Convention Center.
Denney, a Nashville native, passed away last year at the age of 65 after a brief illness.
"Austin was a steady player and the epitome of a tight end,'' said Doug Dickey, who served as Tennessee's head football coach the last three years of Denney's collegiate career. "He had the size and the strength and great soft hands for catching the ball.
"He wasn't the fastest guy, but he had a knack to get open. He was a clutch player for us around the goal line.''
Warren remembers the touchdown pass he threw to Denney just before halftime of the Vols' 18-12 Gator Bowl win over Syracuse on Dec. 31, 1966.
"We were gonna try a fake field goal, and Austin said, 'just throw it to the end zone, I'll get it,' " Warren recalls. "So I raised up and just threw it toward the corner of the end zone, and he went up between two guys and made the catch for a touchdown.''
The 24-yard TD catch proved pivotal in Tennessee's win over a Syracuse team that featured future NFL Hall of Fame running backs Larry Csonka and Floyd Little.
Warren, who went on to coach at BYU with Cougars legend LaVell Edwards, said Denney's success at UT was such that it influenced his input in the development of the West Coast offense.
"I used the tight end a lot because I remembered what we had with Austin,'' Warren said. "A tight end like him just created so many mismatches. He was bigger (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) than any lineman we had, and they couldn't cover him with a linebacker or a little 175-pound safety.
"He was the real deal. He was a basketball player in high school, so he could also jump up and make those catches.''
Denney began his career with the Vols as a fullback, but his hands and size led the coaches to move him to tight end where he became a team captain and All-SEC performer in addition to his All-American honors.
Denney's seven receiving touchdowns in 1966 still stand as a single-season TD mark for Tennessee tight ends.
Denney finished his five-year NFL career with 71 catches for 764 yards and three touchdowns in 49 career games. His best season was with the Bears in 1968, when he caught 23 passes for 247 yards and two TDs.
Denney is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Margaret Petty, who was Miss Tennessee in 1962.
"Austin was married his senior year,'' Warren said. "But we'd make him stay in the dorms with us on Friday nights before the games. We'd always tease him about that.''
Former Vols quarterback Bobby Scott, a freshman Denney's senior year, had a different take on the team captain's presence.
"Austin was a team captain, and they'd come around and do bed checks at 11 p.m.,'' Scott said. "So there he'd be, a big broad-shouldered guy standing in the door, and you couldn't get by him if you had to.
"We all had a lot of respect for him, probably with a little fear mixed in. But we got to know him and he was a good guy that anyone of us could sit down and talk to. I'm just proud I got to be around him.''
Former UT coach Bill Battle, who coached receivers under Dickey in 1966, said Denney made his job easy.
"He was a great player who combined excellent size, speed and physical ability with a positive attitude and leadership,'' Battle said. "He was truly a pleasure to coach.''