Sullinses' ol' dream plays out

Sullinses' ol' dream plays out

The twins from the Nashville area have gone from walk-ons to significant roles for Tennessee.

September 4th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- Cody Sullins has a knack for turning unexpected problems into sunny situations.

The kid who grew up in the Nashville area dreaming of starting on the University of Tennessee offensive line will get that opportunity in Saturday's season opener against Western Kentucky. And he likely will play a few snaps alongside twin brother Cory, who shared the same childhood bedroom full of Volunteers posters.

It took a series of setbacks to complete the Sullins' full-circle story.

"At some point, I guess you just realize everything happens for a reason," Cody said earlier this week. "A lot of things don't make sense at the time, but I can't stand here and say I'd change any of it."

His first goal as an athlete was to suit up someday at UT, but genetics didn't help that goal. He and Cory weren't quick enough to play anywhere except offensive line past the high school level, and both struggled to crack 240 pounds as seniors at White House High School.

"Obviously, big-time college football programs don't usually recruit offensive linemen our size," Cory said.

Cody, who was nearly 10 pounds lighter than Cory, shifted much of his attention to baseball, thinking the diamond would be his route to the coveted college scholarship. But hours spent in the weight room and focusing on mechanics never got his fastball consistently faster than 87 mph, and that's less than ideal for a right-handed prospect.

"It was frustrating, because I had a good circle (changeup) that would really dive in on a right-handed batter," he said, proudly displaying the grip. "I had a little breaking ball that was OK, but that changeup was a good pitch."

White House High's memorable 2004 football season again shifted things, but seemingly for the better. The Blue Devils, anchored by the Sullinses on each line of scrimmage, lost only once and advanced deep into the playoffs.

"That great senior year just kind of brought back that love we had for football," Cody said. "And I just didn't want to end my football career."

The twins caught the attention of several college football scouts, including Wofford coach Mike Ayers, whose successful Division I-AA program ran a triple-option offense that didn't require 300-pound linemen.

The Sullinses set aside their childhood dreams and opted for the practicality of full scholarships at a sterling academic school with a successful football team, albeit on a much smaller level than their beloved Vols.

Late hurdles surfaced again, though.

"(Wofford) got a late commitment from a player they didn't think they could get, so they called us and said we'd have to split one scholarship between the two of us," Cory said. "We were pretty down about it, but then we thought, 'Shoot, it would cost us less to go to Tennessee, even without any scholarship money, so let's do that.'"

Former UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who now recruits the same Middle Tennessee area for Kentucky, had seen the Sullinses and gladly accepted them as walk-ons.

They gradually added enough weight and strength to conceivably help the Vols -- each is now about 275 pounds -- but neither quickly soared up the depth chart. Cody was given a scholarship before last season, and Cory was given a grant-in-aid this semester, but most figured UT's starting interior-line trio of center Josh McNeil and guards Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon would stay intact.

First-year head coach Lane Kiffin and his staff opened nearly every starting position on the team to competition, walk-ons included, and Cody continued to push McNeil, who capped last season with his 35th consecutive start.

Cody hung around, though, and coaches were faced with a tough decision before McNeil reinjured one of his chronically sore knees. Kiffin said Cody probably had earned a spot in the game rotation, anyway, but McNeil's potentially career-ending surgery ended any leftover debate.

"Nobody wants to win a job that way," Cody said. "We're all like brothers around here, and things like what happened to Josh make you sick. But you have to move on. We have to get ready for this season, and what we have to do as a team to start winning games around here again."

Cody said he isn't sure what to expect Saturday -- his first varsity start since high school -- but coaches and teammates have grown increasingly optimistic the past two weeks.

"His best scrimmage was the first one right after Josh went down," Richard said. "He's been so focused, and I can honestly say that I've never seen him play better than he has the past few weeks. And that's good, because we need him."

Cory could be on the field, too, considering he's listed as Richard's primary backup at left guard.

"We're really competitive, but I guess you could say we're best friends, and I'm just so happy for (Cory)," Cody said.

The Sullinses -- who slept in the same room from infancy through their third year of college, and still share an apartment -- try to avoid daydreaming about lining up side by side. They try to stay focused on their techniques and opponents' scouting reports, particularly in light of their size.

"We have to be technicians out there," Cody said. "We have to stay focused on the little details of our techniques. There's a reason coaches teach these techniques. They work.

"I definitely believe that great effort and great technique will take you a long way. If you play as hard and smart as possible, you can get it done."

Effort has never been a problem. UT fifth-year senior Rico McCoy said the twins were "nightmares" as scout-team linemen.

"They're throwback players, man," McCoy said. "I've known those guys since my first year here, and off the field they're cool, really nice guys. But on the field, man, they're mean. Really mean. Every play. When they were on scout team, other guys would go through the motions, but the Sullins? Heck no, man. They brought it. They play hard ball.

"Ask anybody on the team, and they'll tell you the same thing: You better strap up your helmet against those guys. They've earned everything they've gotten, man. Every inch. I've got nothing but respect for those guys."

Cody said his habits haven't softened since he got a scholarship, because his goals were always broader than textbook money. Still, he and Cory, who graduated in December with finance degrees and promptly enrolled in graduate school, certainly appreciated the decrease in future student-loan payments.

"I guess I've used it for motivation a few times, working out or just trying to push yourself that much harder, realizing the situation you're in, but I just try to think of myself as just one of the players," Cody said. "If you do that, and you come here to work hard like they all do, I think you put yourself in a better situation than if you have a 'me against the world' mentality.

"At the same time, I kind of turn into a different person sometimes when I'm in the heat of the battle. I get kind of aggressive, I guess you could say, but I think you've got to be that way on the football field. And that's just the way I've always been coached. I was a smaller guy when I got here, and I've had to fight for everything I've had."

That fighting finally resulted in a chance to be a starter.

"I've been in the No. 2 spot for a couple of years, but I've always kept that focus and intensity like I could go in there any minute and play," Cody said. "You never know -- one snap, one play and you could be called in there. I've always taken that approach, and I think it's paying off now."