KNOXVILLE - Darin Gooch's football career rose as quickly and shockingly as his size.
The Butte (Calif.) College center who added 90 pounds in one year took a surprising phone call one day after spring practice that changed everything.
Gooch, a Nevada native and all-conference player for the Northern California junior college, expected to play one more season for the Roadrunners and hoped to get a scholarship offer from a Big 12 or Pac 10 program.
The Southeastern Conference wasn't considered a legitimate option until the phone rang this spring.
"I was sitting in the meeting room one day after practice, taking my cleats off, and we got a call from Tennessee seeing if we had any eligible offensive linemen, preferably a center," Gooch said. "My coach yelled, 'Hey Gooch, get in here.' It was a real shocker that it was Tennessee. It came out of the blue to be completely honest. I wasn't really expecting an SEC offer.
"There wasn't much deliberation. This is Tennessee. It's a storied football team."
Gooch could have walked on for his hometown Nevada Wolfpack, but he didn't have any Division I offers, partially because he dropped nearly 40 pounds after his senior high school football season to wrestle in the 215-pound weight class.
"I didn't really look like a center, so no one was really interested," he said. "Junior college was one of my only options if I wanted to play football."
Gooch quickly ballooned back to 255, and he started every game for Butte last season at around 270. When he returned to practice the following spring, he was 6-foot-2, 305 pounds.
"Then people were interested," he said.
Gooch has become a legitimate option for playing time, possibly the starting position if he outplays junior Cody Pope the next few weeks of preseason camp. Senior Victor Thomas's recent move back to defensive tackle left center a two-man battle, though freshman James Stone and other guards have delivered a few snaps.
"I got a good start during the summer," Gooch said. "The learning part isn't as hard as it would have been if I had just come straight in, but the physical part is much different than juco. I'm adjusting to that still."
First-year UT coach Derek Dooley was far from ready to declare Gooch a starter.
"Gooch is still new, and it's hard when you're just learning an offense," Dooley said. "But he's doing some good things. Cody has a good advantage because he's been here all spring, and he's doing some good things.
"We need a little bit more consistency there."
"We're always going to put the best people on the field," he said. "I'm not saying I'm going to be the best person for the job, but we're all pushing each other to see who's the best."
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