published Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Hargis: Smith, Eastland fired up byTennessee Vols’ Junior Day

Whether or not you agree with his tactics, new University of Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin certainly isn’t boring. Or ordinary. After nearly two weeks without making headlines, Kiffin and his staff again spiced up the offseason during Junior Day.

While hosting nearly 100 of the Southeast’s top junior prospects on Saturday, several Volunteers assistant coaches challenged the players to match their enthusiasm by ripping off their shirts. The result was more than just a lasting impression on an otherwise routine recruiting process.

“I think that whole staff knows exactly how to get the attention of players they want,” said Ooltewah defensive end Jacques Smith, who was in attendance along with Ringgold fullback/linebacker Martez Eastland. “Most of us have been to other visits like that or will be in the next few weeks, and they wanted to make sure they stood out. It definitely worked.”

Smith, who is rated by Rivals.com as the state’s top overall prospect for next year, became UT’s first verbal commitment Feb. 4. He said the coaches’ excitement only solidified his desire to play there and that several other recruits, including Eastland, told him the Vols had moved up their list.

“At first I was looking around and wondering if that was actually happening,” said Eastland, who already has an offer from South Carolina and will visit Auburn’s and Georgia’s junior days in the coming weeks. “I couldn’t believe they were actually tearing their shirts off. First one guy and then another and then another. It got all of us jacked up about playing.”

According to both Smith and Eastland, after meeting UT coaches, trainers and academic support staff, the recruits were led into the Neyland-Thompson sports center’s film room, where Kiffin introduced several current players, including safety Eric Berry, and thanked the prospects for attending.

Then the mood began to shift. Some of the coaches starting doing Hulk Hogan impressions.

“It was like a pregame speech and Coach Kiffin was acting mad and saying that we didn’t seem enthused about playing for Tennessee,” Smith said. “He was asking us how we felt about Florida coming into our house and beating us like they did last year and then telling us that wasn’t going to happen anymore with him as our coach and the type players they were bringing in now.

“Then one of the assistants started telling us how important special teams were and ripped off his shirt. From there, it just got crazy and they told all of us to get up and get excited. We all started jumping around and yelling, ‘We are UT! We are UT!’ It was like we were all on the team already getting ready for a game, and it was the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. That’s exactly how I play the game — just let it all out and play on emotion. I was ready to suit up and play right then.”

Ultimately all the emotion and trash talk will subside and this new UT staff will be judged by what it accomplishes on the field. But the degree of success will be determined by the level of talent they bring in, and whether it’s calling out rival coaches or lighting the emotional fuse of a room full of prospective players, they are certainly proving an ability to get the attention of the type players it will take to close the talent gap.

“The coaches definitely got in a lot of guys’ minds, and it will be hard for anybody to not want to go play for a team with that kind of attitude,” Smith said. “I love the confidence and excitement that you feel from Coach Kiffin. There’s a huge difference in their staff and every other place I’ve been already.

“I was at Alabama’s junior camp a couple of weeks ago, and honestly, it was boring compared to Tennessee. We toured the campus at Alabama and the stadium and met with Coach (Nick) Saban. But there’s no comparison in how excited you get after talking with their staff and the staff at Tennessee. We saw the academic side and the business side of what Tennessee offers, but then we got to see how much fun it will be to play there, too. What Tennessee did blew everybody away.”

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...

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