Every spring, fans obsess over college football recruiting. In fact, thanks to the popularity of websites like Scout.com and Rivals.com, the recruiting race has become almost a second competitive season, pitting school against school for these gifted 17- and 18-year-olds.
The sites award up to five stars, based on a player's position skills and his raw speed and strength. Many players who are rewarded four or five stars can practically punch their own ticket to any school in the country. Once they're committed, that school gets points on the site recruiting rankings, and a top-10 finish is usually worth a pay-bonus to coaches. Most of these five-star recruits will see their future alma maters for the first time on official visits during their senior year of high school.
This story is not about them.
This story is about the boys who might live down the street from you. They might go to church with you. They might have given your son a concussion, right here in Tennessee. And these boys have seen their future alma mater long before high school.
"We sat way up there. I was 7," says University of Tennessee senior football player Anthony Anderson, poised for a breakout year as Tennessee's punt return specialist. He's standing on the grass in Neyland Stadium at the Vols' Media Day, and he points way up into the nosebleed seats of the massive stadium: the top rows of section OO.
The first time he saw a Tennessee football game in person, he was with his uncle and mentor, Wendell Anderson, who was a football letterman at Tennessee in 1980. Anthony said he knew then that playing football at Tennessee was what he wanted to do. He was a star at Austin-East High School, but no other destination ever crossed his mind.
In 2007, Anderson ran through the T for the first time. "It took my breath," he says, smiling and shaking his head. "It was a dream come true."
That phrase is repeated by all the players I talk to. A dream come true. And I know a little bit about what they mean. I saw my first Tennessee football game in blankets. I've never seen my parents happier, sadder, or angrier than I have seen them in Neyland Stadium. My first pair of footie pajamas was orange and featured an illustration of a member of the Pride of the Southland Band.
As an 18-year-old, I put on that same band uniform and marched in the Pride. I witnessed every second of our national championship firsthand. The band and I opened the T—one of the most mind-bending experiences of my life—but had my path been athletic, I would've done anything to run through it.
"I still see it all through the eyes of a fan," says Daniel Hood, a graduate of Knoxville Catholic and now the Vols' towering sophomore nose tackle. When asked about his first time in the stadium, he points to almost the same spot as Anderson, up in the OO section. As a 5-year-old, Hood watched from the very top row and then waited in the cold for autographs in the north end zone. Now, he holds down the middle of the defensive line and signs autographs in the north end zone. "It's just such a surreal, incredible experience," he adds.
Tennessee's balance between home boys and those from elsewhere has been forever in flux. Our most famous player, Peyton Manning, hailed from Louisiana. The coach that we named our stadium after, Gen. Robert Neyland, was from Texas and played ball at Army. Our most famous year of the modern era, the 1998 national championship team, featured very little in-state talent.
Still, it was coached by Phillip Fulmer, who was born in Tennessee and played ball in Tennessee. And a myriad of former stars were also products of the state, including Reggie White, Reggie Cobb, Al Wilson, Jermaine Copeland, Andy Kelly, and Johnny Majors.
But in recent years, Knoxville itself has been overlooked as a producer of marquee athletic talent, resulting in one very publicly bitter rival, and a mistake UT's new coaching administration is determined not to repeat. As a child, Randall Cobb sold hot dogs at Neyland Stadium so he could get in to watch the games. Cobb wanted to wear orange. At Alcoa High School, he was a phenomenon at multiple positions and led his team to four state championships. But when the time came for recruiting, it was Kentucky (and former Vols offensive coordinator Randy Sanders) who came calling.
Many schools will occasionally miss out on hometown talent, but it takes a special moment of incompetence to ignore that kind of promise, especially for a player who can give you what you need at virtually any position. Late in the process, Tennessee finally offered Cobb a scholarship, but he was already long committed to Kentucky—and long embittered to the team he had once loved. Cobb went on to receive All-SEC honors each of his three years at Kentucky and was also named first-team All-American in 2010 by ESPN and Sports Illustrated. He is now a Green Bay Packer.
During those same years, the Vols almost dropped the ball on another local talent, Nick Reveiz. His father played for the team in the 1980s, but UT took no notice. Reveiz decided to walk on with the Vols, first infuriating offensive linemen as a hard-hitting member of the scout team, then rising to lead on special teams. He earned a starting linebacker position and a scholarship. As a team captain, Reveiz became a backbone of the team during the coaching disasters. Despite his small size, he is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
"We want to recruit from the inside out," says Terry Joseph, the recruiting coordinator under second-year Head Coach Derek Dooley. Since their arrival in Knoxville, the new coaches have declared a desire to shift the type of player that Tennessee pursues, away from their star-rating and toward character and desire. And the desire to play ball for the Big Orange runs very deep in these parts.
"We start within four hours of campus, evaluating who we're going to offer scholarships to. We want kids who bleed orange," Joseph says. "We're going to be aggressive about getting these guys who've followed the team since playing pee-wee ball, because they grew up watching this team win. They are vital to our success."
Dooley is a bit more measured. "Do we want local talent? Of course we do," he says. "What we won't do is compromise our standards. We want to play championship football."
Given the youth of the squad, it seems unlikely the 2011 Vols will be the stuff of national championships, but the team does have one of the most home-rich rosters of the modern era: One-third of the team was born in Tennessee. And the trend of pursuing local talent seems set to continue in 2012. Tennessee has already received commitments from multiple Knoxville players, including Central star Cody Blanc, who chose the Vols over Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt.
"Growing up in Knoxville and having my family here—I mean, it's Neyland Stadium," Blanc says, marveling about the "wall of fame" inside UT's Neyland/Thompson practice facility. Despite his numbers being easily on par or better than almost any of his national competition, recruiting websites list Cody only as a two-star recruit. That evaluation might have been more starry if Cody were from Central Florida or Texas (where the recruit hype is even bigger), but he isn't. It doesn't matter, he says, because the school he has loved his entire life came to call.
So if you go to see a game this fall, and you happen to find yourself sitting in section OO, keep your eyes peeled—that kid two rows over might just be on the field in a few years.