Recruiting gurus simply amaze me, including CBC's own Drew Pirtle. Gurus, such as Drew, soak in recruiting knowledge like a heavy duty sponge. Oftentimes these guys know all the high schools by name in certain hot spot cities. They know all the players by name, player family backgrounds, what types of offenses their high schools run, etc. They know 40 times, top-five school lists, official visit schedules and on and on. While I like to read the recruiting articles, I am not what you would call a recruiting junkie. I don't live on the message boards, and I am not a recruiting "insider" by any stretch. With that being said, I would classify myself as someone who follows "crootin" to an extent, and I am looking forward to National Signing Day next week just like all college football fans.
San Fransisco 49ers star linebacker Patrick Willis has received a ton of press over the past few weeks. Willis, who has been regarded as one of the top linebackers in the NFL over the past few seasons, played on chronically bad teams his first four years in the NFL. Also, he has played his entire career on the West Coast in San Fransisco. When you combine the two factors of a bad team on the left coast, you get an under appreciated and under covered player. That has all changed this year (with the success of the 49ers), however, as Willis was profiled on E60, the New York Times and ESPN.com (just to name a few). The former Ole Miss Rebel and Bruceton Central Tiger has certainly come a long way from his humble beginnings in rural West Tennessee.
My first job out of college was working at a small market ESPN Radio Station in West Tennessee, 96.5 WBFG Parkers Crossroads, The Sports Voice of West Tennessee to be exact. (This was in the early 2000's, and WBFG was the only FM ESPN affiliate in the state of Tennessee. The GM of the station, at that time, Dan Hughes was a visionary; just look at sports radio today.) As a station, we covered a lot of high school sports - football, hoops, baseball, etc. We even gave out the very coveted "Taco Bell - West Tennessee High School Football Player of the Week Award" to the brightest star from the previous Friday night during the football season. (Willis could have won it every week while starring at Bruceton Central High School.) Anyway, my cohort, Kerry Mallard, and I drove the trophy out to Bruceton one week to present to Patrick at school. (He was coming off a typical monster game at running back and linebacker.) Patrick was a star player locally, but he wasn't on the radar of many high level D-1 college teams due to the fact that he played in tiny Bruceton. Bruceton is a school that has actually had very good success over the years in single A football in West Tennessee so where's the love (haha)? Kerry and I met with the Head Football Coach and caught Patrick in the hallway in-between classes to present him the award. Patrick was a very nice kid that gave a hearty handshake (with those big meat hooks), looked you in the eye and answered our questions with "Yes Sir" and "Thank you" (Even though I wasn't old enough to be a "Sir"). When we were leaving, Kerry turned to me and said, "He's going to be a star one day. Do you know how I know this?" I knew Patrick was an absolute beast on the football field so this answer could go in several directions so I responded with a simple, "How?" Kerry quipped, "Did you feel the heavy calluses on his hands? That means he's hitting the weights hard and has a great work ethic." I doubt Kerry knew that Willis would one day be an All-Pro NFL linebacker, but his words that day couldn't have rang more true.
The feel good story of Patrick Willis has helped me realize a couple of things. First of all (as always stated by the recruiting gurus), I fully realize the state of Tennessee doesn't produce a high number of BCS conference caliber players, but the "dearth of talent" that is often linked to TSSAA football is not very accurate. Tennessee doesn't produce quantity, but there sure are some quality football players that come out of the Volunteer state. Willis is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, and Jason Witten is arguably the best tight end. What do those two elite players have in common? That's right; they both played their high school ball in the borders of the Volunteer state. Plus, don't tell Nick Saban the state of Tennessee doesn't produce players. Saban used a couple of All-SEC Volunteer state natives to help win the BCS National Championship this past season with Barrett Jones anchoring the offensive line and Dont'a Hightower leading the defense. Obviously, the examples above are only a few players not encompassing a large sample size. Powerhouse states such as Georgia, Florida, Texas, Louisiana and California produce far more players than Tennessee, but the lack of respect for TSSAA football goes a little too far at times.
Secondly, the Patrick Willis story tells me this. The recruiting gurus and college coaches aren't always right about a kid. Scout.com had Patrick Willis ranked as a two-star player coming out of high school, not exactly the type of kid that fans get super excited about. He wasn't even ranked at his position per the Scout website. Patrick's home state Volunteers didn't offer so he took his talents down to Oxford, MS, where he excelled to say the least. The collegiate accolades are astounding: two-time All SEC, two-time All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus Award and a Jack Lambert Award. Not a bad list of accomplishments for a two-star kid from rural West Tennessee.
With the above paragraph being said, I have no problems with the star rankings or those who religiously follow them. Many of the top ranked players are ranked highly for good reason, and those kids typically pan out. I wish the Vols could land a top five signing class full of four and five star studs. However, I love the kids like Willis that come out of nowhere to be unbelievable players in the SEC and beyond. When we're all scanning down the list of UT's completed class next Wednesday night, will we read the name of a future Patrick Willis? Will we have a diamond in the rough in the fold? Most likely not, but based on the chance that a future slobber knocker of the SEC hidden as a two-star is a part of Dooley's haul should make all UT fans giddy with excitement.
Be sure to visit Checkerboard Chatter next week for coverage of National Signing Day by Recruiting Guru Drew Pirtle and the rest of the CBC staff.