Building off the momentum of an 8-4 season that included a share of the Southern Conference championship, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football staff had pieced together an impressive collection of commitments from high school stars since December.
But nothing is certain until those commitments actually sign their national letters of intent to become a part of the program. And because UTC's staff had battled against several FBS programs to secure those commitments, there was a bit more drama than usual as they waited for the faxes to make everything official.
Although no player had indicated he would waiver, as Wednesday's national signing day dawned there was enough uncertainty to keep Mocs coaches on edge at times.
Times Free Press assistant sports editor Stephen Hargis was given exclusive access to sit in with the UTC coaches as they awaited the faxes to roll in and recorded the following timeline as events happened.
• 7:03 a.m. -- The staff is beginning to gather around a conference table in defensive coordinator Adam Braithwaite's office. There are two bags of bagels from Panera and a blank dry erase board where Carter Crutchfield, the director of football operations, will place a magnetic plate with a player's name, high school and size as each commitment becomes a signee.
• 7:10 -- Columbus Carver linebacker Tim Whatley becomes the first to get his signed scholarship papers faxed into the compliance office just down the hall from the conference room. Aside from his on-field talent, coaches note that Whatley is also his class salutatorian and plans to major in chemistry and become a pharmacist. It is a theme that runs throughout the class as the Mocs recruited a class of talented athletes who also are solid academically.
• 7:17 -- Seated at his desk, Braithwaite continually looks down to check his cell phone for messages or updates from recruits. Fellow assistants Alex Atkins, Brandon Cooper, Jeff Durden, Chris Harr, B.J. Hogan, Marcus West and Rusty Wright, as well as video coordinator Alex Schnitzer, find it hard to remain seated in one spot. They pace from the room out into the hallway like expectant fathers, all waiting for word from recruiting coordinator Will Healy, who is waiting next to the fax machine just down the hall. As each fax is received from a new signee, Healy sends word to the rest of the staff, each time easing the mood in the room a bit more.
• 7:45 -- As Trevor Wright becomes the second signee to fax in paperwork, coaches begin debating whether the two-way star from Greeneville, Tenn., will play receiver or defensive back. It's a debate that won't be settled until Wright gets on campus. The night before signing day Wright had called Healy at close to 11, setting off a near anxiety attack.
"Usually when a recruit calls that late, it's not good news," Healy explained. "Before he even said anything to me, I said, 'Trevor, don't do this to me, man.' He says, 'Do what, Coach? I was just calling to let you know we won our basketball game.' I nearly passed out because I was worried he was calling to say he had changed his mind. But it was just to tell me about his basketball game. He knew he was messin' with me and he got me good. He thought it was real funny, but I didn't."
• 7:50 -- The biggest signee in this class, literally, makes it official when right tackle Kennington Cadwell (6-6, 280) sends his fax through. Typically players of his size are scooped up by bigger programs, but the Mocs benefited from the fact that Cadwell had missed much of his junior season with an injury. That meant the bigger schools moved on to other linemen his size, and after enduring one final late push by Alabama-Birmingham, the Mocs have a mammoth body to work with.
"His mom cooked spaghetti and meatballs for me when I made my in-home visit," said Atkins, who coaches offensive linemen. "The kid had already eaten, but he made another plate and ate with me again. I liked that. We can put some more weight on him if he keeps eating like that and move some people out of his way."
• 7:55 -- Upbeat head coach Russ Huesman steps in and asks if anyone has a book he can borrow.
"I've got to fly out Friday, and I need a distraction while I'm on the plane," Huesman says.
Several coaches answer, almost in unison, that he should read Tony Dungy's new book. Huesman disappears back to the compliance office to check on more faxes.
• 8:20 -- McCallie's Cam Walker and C.J. Fritz get their papers sent, and just like they will throughout the morning, as a recruit becomes a signee, coaches watch that player's highlights. They talk about Walker's athletic ability for a big body and then go silent for a few seconds as Fritz, a state champion sprinter, blows past opponents on several highlights. The silence is broken when Durden, the Mocs' offensive coordinator, says he believes this is the fastest collection of athletes he's seen the program acquire in one class. That sparks a debate over who is actually the fastest player in this class.
• 8:31 -- After a delay in any new news, all the coaches begin to check their cell phones more often. There's been an NCAA mandated "dead period" since Sunday at midnight, which meant coaches are not allowed to contact recruits during that time. Coaches then discuss whether they can text players once they've signed. After checking with the compliance office they are told that the NCAA has changed its rule this year and that they now can communicate with players once they've signed. The old rule stated that even though a player had signed, coaches had to wait 24 hours before calling or texting them.
• 8:34 -- The mood in the room eases noticeably when it's announced that running back Richardre Bagley has just sent in his NLI. Even in a class filled with playmakers, Bagley jumps off the screen during his series of highlights. He had also been one of the toughest players to bring in for the Mocs. In early January, three members of the staff sat at a Chick-Fil-A in Powder Springs (Ga.), about five miles from Bagley's house and waited for Furman coaches to finish their in-home visit and leave. After waiting in the restaurant for nearly an hour, Bagley called Durden to inform him that there was no need for the UTC staff to bother coming to his house because he had just committed to Furman.
"I felt like I got punched in the gut," Durden said. "I sat there for probably another 30 minutes, just fuming."
The next day, however, Bagley called Durden back to say he felt he had rushed his decision and wanted to meet with Mocs coaches again. After UTC coaches visited Bagley in his home the next week, he later called Durden again with more news.
"I was at one of our basketball games with some other recruits, and he called out of the blue to say he wanted to commit," Durden said. "I was pumped. He can't get here fast enough, because he's a no-doubt home run for us."
• 8:48 -- Another big fish, offensive lineman Branden Parker (6-3, 260) has been reeled in.
"For the offensive line, we recruit guys who play tackle in high school," Atkins said. "Once they get here, the ones who don't move as well get moved to guard. I ate at his house, too. His mom ordered out and brought us some jerk chicken. She got the mild kind because she knew I don't like spicy food."
West, who coaches the defensive line, can't resist lobbing a verbal grenade at Atkins.
"Dang, did you eat at every kid's house?"
• 9:01 -- Healy enters the room wearing a white No. 1 jersey over his sport coat. Healy is talking to the family of safety Tavon Lawson on the phone and jokes that since so many of the Mocs' signees want to wear No. 1, whoever shows first this preseason will get first choice.
Lawson had just turned down a late push and offer from Minnesota one week ago. Just as quickly as he came into the room, Healy exits, never ending the phone conversation.
The other assistants jokingly refer to Healy as "Tom Cruise" because of his resemblance to the actor.
"The thing about Will is he's comfortable going to recruit at a big private school or an inner city," West said. "He's just got that kind of personality that he can connect with anybody."
Healy later retells a story of recruiting inner-city schools in Memphis and Atlanta, neighborhoods where most programs send black assistants to recruit.
"I like being the only white coach going into those places because it makes me stand out," Healy said. "That way when I call them back I say, 'Remember me? I was the white guy you talked to.'"
• 9:28 -- Faxes are rolling again as five more players send in their NLI in a rush of about 15 minutes of activity. Memphis Mitchell athlete Dejuan McQuarters is among those, which prompts Huesman to announce, "We just got a lot faster."
"Before he's through, he may be the most electrifying player here since Buster Skrine," Atkins says. "And look at that afro. He looks like the dude from 'Kid 'n Play.' He's about 5-9 but looks 6-2 with that 'fro."
• 10:10 -- The Mocs now lack only two signatures to have all 19 commitments signed. But the two that are missing -- from linebacker Dale Warren and athlete Penny Smith -- are both highly rated prospects who were pursued by several other schools.
Atkins is the first to notice that Smith just changed the background on his Twitter account, deleting the giant gold Chattanooga "C." Smith is a two-time all-state player from Knoxville Fulton who had committed first to Appalachian State, then flipped to the Mocs recently. For the first time all morning, there's a real sense of anxiety.
As West scrolls through Smith's Twitter account, he announces, "Hey, a couple of hours ago Penny tweeted that he just got off the phone with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Somebody go check with Will and see what's the story on Penny."
Rodgers-Cromartie played at Tennessee State, which had tried to recruit Smith late. Smith had promised UTC coaches he wasn't interested in TSU, but his tweet about talking to the current NFL defensive back for Denver, and the fact he hasn't sent his NLI yet, has become cause for concern in the room.
This isn't the first time Smith has sent Mocs coaches looking for an antacid. Late in the evening on Jan. 14, after Smith had already committed to UTC, he tweeted "Decisions :/". That caused Healy to begin frantically dialing to see what Smith's message meant.
"We were all worried he was having second thoughts or that another team was making a push for him," Healy said. "It turns out he was just tweeting about a girl."
• 10:47 -- The room erupts as it's announced that Warren's paperwork was in. A three-star prospect, Warren has talent and a physical style that jump off the screen when coaches watch his highlight DVD. When Dale hits ball carriers, they're not going any farther.
"The thing I like about Dale is he's no-nonsense," Atkins said. "He don't say much, but when he does you better believe he's serious. When he came here for his visit, it was the easiest recruit we dealt with. Within about an hour of being here he just said, 'Coach, if ya'll like me, let's roll. I'm good to go.'"
• 11:59 -- After a frustrating wait, Penny Smith gets his NLI sent, giving the Mocs all 19 players they were expecting to sign.
Healy enters the room again with his cell phone to his ear. This time he's joking with Smith's mom.
"I had to put on fresh deodorant. Ya'll had me sweating a little bit," Healy says into the phone.
As he hangs up there are high-fives and fist pumps as the Mocs have finished off their largest number of signees in six years, getting 19 of the 25 players that made on-campus visits.
Hours later it will become official that this class is ranked No. 1 among FCS programs, and as the staff prepares to leave their office at the Roundhouse for a lunch break, they aren't shy about saying that this class, along with the talent already on the roster, will contend for championships.
"We had the Southern Conference championship trophy and a big picture of the rings everywhere the recruits went when they came in for their visits," Huesman said. "We wanted them to see that and know what our program had accomplished. We're selling something different this year than in years past, and this class of kids bought in."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 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 seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...