published Monday, February 11th, 2013

Vols glad to get Lee: Former East Carolina commitment picks the Vols, giving them an elusive running back

KNOXVILLE — The highlight video showed a diminutive running back bursting through small creases, bouncing off would-be tacklers and speeding past entire 11-man defenses.

A few in the crowd oohed audibly while others ahed in marvel.

Tennessee's winding search for a tailback lingered on some top-flight targets before eventually landing on Jabo Lee, a consensus three-star prospect from Dillion (S.C.) High School who had been committed to East Carolina for more than nine months.

By the way running backs coach Jay Graham talks about Lee, though, the Volunteers hardly settled in inking a productive high-school player with a combination of speed and power.

"You can see it's hard to put hands on him," Graham said as Lee's film played during a recruiting celebration in Knoxville on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium. "He breaks tackles and does it all. You can see the change of direction there -- he can make you miss."

It's the same things Graham saw two years ago during his third and final season at South Carolina. Tennessee, along with Virginia Tech and East Carolina, offered the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder a scholarship following a 1,540-yard, 20-touchdown sophomore season. During his junior season, Lee ran for 1,642 yards and 27 touchdowns and and garnered interest from both South Carolina and Clemson, though neither the Gamecocks nor the Tigers ever extended an offer.

Lee verbally committed to the Pirates last April.

While the Vols swung and missed on elite tailback prospects like Derrick Henry and Derrick Green, flirted with four-star options like Tarean Folston, A.J. Turman and Jordan Wilkins and made late runs for Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford after Jones replaced the dismissed Derek Dooley, Graham kept in contact with Lee.

"He was an individual we were recruiting all the way through," new Tennessee coach Butch Jones said during his signing-day news conference. "We knew that he had a tremendous skill set. Jay Graham did a tremendous job of developing a rapport and relationship with him."

Lee's senior season was derailed by injuries that further failed to help his stock, so Jones and Tennessee turned to some older film to evaluate him as an option.

"What we saw was an individual that if he had the benefit of a full senior season, would have developed into one of the highest ranking running backs in the country and [been] very highly recruited," Jones said. "We had a great need, as you all are aware of, at running back. We had a lot of known information with him, so we felt that he would be a great addition to our offense [because] he fits everything that we do.

"His [high school] run scheme is what we do here, so we thought that it was a perfect fit. Jay did a great job of once he established that relationship of keeping that relationship. Tennessee is a place that Jabo always envisioned himself playing."

Lee was one of three players in Tennessee's 2013 class -- receiver Paul Harris and junior-college cornerback Riyahd Jones, both early enrollees -- who never took an official visit to campus.

"Tennessee is my dream school and I was a big fan of Eric Berry when he played there, so that it is where I wanted to be," he told the Florence Morning News on signing day. "And when the time came, that is really where I wanted to be, so I followed my heart."

Tennessee's need for a tailback only increased when Quenshaun Watson left the program following his freshman season, and the Vols found one they believe has plenty of upside.

"I've known Jabo for a long time, a couple of years here, and the thing that I know about Jabo is [he's] very tough," said Graham, the former Tennessee tailback who was ranked one of the nation's top 50 recruiters for 2013 by 247sports. "He has the thing that we were looking for: a young man with speed. He can create explosive plays.

"That's what he has. Over his high school career I've watched him play a lot, and he's always produced. I like his ability."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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