KNOXVILLE — Most college football fans in Tennessee and Kentucky know the Ballad of Randall Cobb.
The Knoxville-area star sold hot dogs in Neyland Stadium as a child, and he dreamed of one day running into its famed checkerboard end zones. But circumstances change. The Alcoa High School quarterback committed to Kentucky well before Tennessee tried to swoop in late and steal his signature, but he stood by his word and became a Wildcat.
And he’s become one of the best players in Kentucky football history. The wide receiver, special-package quarterback and return man has become a legitimate All-America candidate at the all-purpose position.
And Saturday afternoon he’ll be trying again to get to the Tennessee checkerboards as an opposing player. The Southeastern Conference game kicks off at 12:21 p.m.
The Volunteers (5-6, 2-5) have gotten used to seeing Cobb with the Wildcats (6-5, 2-5), although they’ll never like it.
“He’s awesome, and he should be on our team,” UT senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “I knew when he was [in high school] that he was a special player, and he really should be here.”
Cobb has several close friends on UT’s team, and most of them admit they understood his decision to play for Kentucky. Some even empathize.
UT senior defensive end Chris Walker, once a highly prized prospect from Memphis, committed to the Vols in December 2006. But when Nick Saban took Alabama’s head-coaching job weeks later, he came after Walker and immediately impressed the player and his mother.
“Honestly, the same thing that happened to Randall happened to me when Coach Saban got the job at Alabama,” Walker said. “So many seniors on our [UT] team got calls from Saban when he got there, but I told him, ‘I’m firmly committed to Tennessee, because I’m a man of my word.’
“That’s what Randall did for Kentucky.”
Not that Walker would have minded Cobb being a man of his East Tennessee roots, though.
“I know Randall really well,” Walker said. “When he comes back in the summers, we hang out a lot and catch up. We’ve texted this week, just having a little fun. But he’s a good guy.
“He’s a great player and even better person. I’m glad he’s my friend and I wish he was my teammate.”
Though Cobb won’t fully admit it on the record, few things would mean more to him than stopping UT’s 25-game winning streak over Kentucky — the nation’s longest active streak between two FBS programs.
“It’s just another game,” Cobb told Kentucky media early this week. “That’s it. I’ve got nothing to say this week. I’m going to talk with my pads.
“It’s time to play ball.”
Cobb wouldn’t talk too much this week about his homecoming trip, but he was a tad more talkative when the Times Free Press interviewed him during the summer.
“Obviously, it’s not just another game, but you have to treat it like it’s just another game,” Cobb said then. “You can’t treat any game like it’s bigger than the others, or you’ll get too hyped up and get yourself in trouble. When that time comes, I’ve just got to do everything I can to stay poised and stay within myself.
“That’s the best way — just treat it like any other game, even if it’s not.”
If Saturday is like just about any other game, the Vols will have their hands full with the top Cat. His multiple role makes him the unquestioned centerpiece of a fairly dynamic offense.
“Phenomenal football player,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “Versatile football player. It’s really hard to say take him out of the game, because he’s everywhere. They do a great job. They have an excellent coaching staff that knows what it’s doing. They can play him at quarterback, at slot. They can play him outside. They can put him at runner.
“You can’t just say take him out of the game. Nobody has and nobody will. You just hope you minimize the big plays.”
The 5-foot-11, 186-pound Cobb — a candidate for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given annually to the nation’s most versatile player, is second nationally with 186.1 all-purpose yards per game.
Cobb is Kentucky’s career leader with 37 touchdowns in 34 career games, and he’s averaging more than one score per game this season. He had 170 rushing yards against Vanderbilt and 171 receiving yards at Mississippi State. He’s completed five of eight passes for three touchdowns, and he returned a punt 50 yards for a score against Western Kentucky.
“You can’t just focus on Randall, because they’ve got other really good players on offense, but you have to know where he is before every snap,” Walker said. “You just have to know where he is at all times. He’s that good. He’s one of the best players in the country.”
And he doesn’t play for the program he loved growing up.
“We wish he was here, but he’s not, so it’s our job to take care of business and beat him,” Thompson said. “We want to get to a bowl game, and he’s on the team that’s in our way.”