On campus for nearly a month now, Chris Donald is just one of the boys when he works out with his new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga teammates.
"When I came down here I didn't really know what to expect, but everybody took me in and treated me as one of their own," he said.
Three years ago, he was one of the jewels of Tennessee's 2007 signing class, which also included Mocs quarterback B.J. Coleman. Donald, an all-everything star at Huntingdon High School, was rated by Rivals.com as the top inside linebacker prospect in the country and top overall prospect in the state.
A Parade and USA Today All-American, he had a remarkable prep career as both a linebacker and running back. In his four years as a starter at both positions, he finished with 280 tackles, 66 for loss, 4,690 rushing yards and 56 rushing touchdowns.
Great things were expected of him during his career with the Vols, but they never materialized for the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder. He redshirted in 2007 and played sparingly during the next two seasons, moving back and forth between linebacker and defensive end, so he transferred to UTC in January.
"I think it comes with a little pressure," he said of being rated so highly out of high school, "but I guess it's all about how you go to it. When I was a freshman I don't really think I had the mindset that I should have. That kind of woke me up a little bit, and ever since then I've been working hard and trying to contribute as much as I can."
After Coleman transferred to UTC last May, Donald said he considered coming with him. Instead, he stuck around at UT hoping to make something happen during the fall. Nothing did. He played in just seven games, mostly on special teams, and didn't make a tackle.
Meanwhile, Coleman was thriving as the Mocs' starting quarterback, helping UTC go 6-5 for its first winning season since 2005. Donald took notice and contacted his former freshman suite-mate.
"I just called him one day, asked him how everything was, and I told him I wanted to come down here and join him if I could," Donald said.
After visiting UTC and meeting with coach Russ Huesman, Donald said the decision to join Coleman in Chattanooga was an easy one. For Huesman, frankly, it was a bit harder. He didn't immediately offer Donald a spot on the team, in part because he isn't keen on accepting transfers with two years of eligibility left.
Huesman signed both Donald and UAB transfer Nick Davison after taking a hard look at the character of both players. He said that "if a red flag had popped up on either one of the them, I would have passed," regardless of how many stars they had coming out of high school.
The Mocs begin spring practice on Feb. 28 - Wednesday was their first day of mat drills - and Donald will start out at one of the linebacker spots in UTC's 4-3 defense. What comes next for him is a chance to restart his career, just as Coleman did.
"Like I told Chris when he came down here, you have an opportunity to come play football. It's pure," Coleman said. "He's got a fresh start, and he's come in here and hit the ground running."