Wiedmer: Wondrous weekend for Volniacs

Wiedmer: Wondrous weekend for Volniacs

April 28th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Vols T logo

Vols T logo

Submitted for your Big Orange approval: Has there ever been a better 72 hours to be a Tennessee Volniac - Off-season Edition - than those just past?

From the NFL draft to sophomore post player Jarnell Stokes' announcement that he'll say no to the NBA for at least one more season to the role new UT football coach Butch Jones played in Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher becoming the NFL's overall No.1 pick, it has to feel great to love the Tennessee Volunteers.

Now to the details, which we'll begin with Saturday's news that the Memphis man-child Stokes -- he of the 16 double-doubles this past winter -- will return his 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame to UT, a decision certain to make the Vols a serious threat to Kentucky and Florida within the Southeastern Conference and a near certainty for the NCAA tournament.

Befitting a young man who was rated one of the top 10 players in his class entering his senior year in high school two years ago -- he played a half-season for UT in 2011-12 after the TSSAA ruled him ineligible -- the rising junior admitted he was all but gone to the pros when the Vols' season ended with an NIT home loss to Mercer.

But then he began to reconsider, his mind changing for good Friday when he played a pickup game with Jeronne Maymon, the senior of similar size and ability who was lost all of last season because of a knee injury.

"I saw how Jeronne was playing," Stokes told the media, "and [coming back] just seemed like the right thing to do because of how good of a team we can have next year."

How good the basketball Vols could be next season is scary. UT barely missed March Madness for the second straight spring largely because of Maymon's absence.

With the big fellows coming back, prep All-America shooting guard Robert Hubbs set to arrive and seniors Trae Golden and Jordan McRae forming the SEC's most experienced backcourt, the Vols could be a legitimate Elite Eight threat.

UT hasn't threatened to dominate the NFL draft in recent years. The Vols didn't have a single player drafted in the first three rounds of either the 2011 or 2012 drafts.

But wideout Cordarrelle Patterson was spared the indignity of wearing a white sportcoat, bowtie and suspenders to the opening night of the draft without being selected when the Minnesota Vikings got him with the 29th overall pick.

Then Justin Hunter went to the Tennessee Titans in Friday's second round, offensive lineman Dallas Thomas going to Miami in the third.

That's three players in the first three rounds with tight end Mychal Rivera going to Oakland in Saturday's sixth round. For a UT team that just went 5-7, that might be a further example of why former coach Derek Dooley had to go, but it's also a positive recruiting tool for Jones.

Not that Jones should need many more positives to prove his worth after drawing 61,000 to the spring game, currently standing fourth in those ranking next year's recruiting classes and watching his former Central Michigan signee become the overall No. 1 pick.

In fact, Fisher might be the biggest reason for Volniacs the world over to feel good about the Big Orange's football future.

In a story first reported by Yahoo! on Friday morning, it seems that Jones -- then the head coach at Central Michigan -- first noticed Fisher on a basketball court, where the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder moved with speed and grace.

It seems that Jones was so taken with Fisher as a junior that he ran up and down in front of the stands at Detroit's suburban Stoney Creek High to make sure no Big Ten coaches were in attendance.

They weren't, because BCS programs don't usually need to envision what a 240-pound lineman might become. They usually focus on guys who already weigh 275 pounds or more.

But Jones saw Fisher's wide shoulders, long arms and large hands and felt certain he could beef him up. He asked Fisher to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every night at 2 a.m. When the player got to campus, that number increased to three or four throughout the day. Fisher soon weighed 300 pounds and maintained it without losing his athletic ability.

Though Jones moved on to Cincinnati after Fisher's freshman year, his recruiting instincts were proven brilliant when the Kansas City Chiefs selected the Chippewa on Thursday night.

The irony, of course, is that Jones has spent much of his first months with the Vols encouraging his offensive linemen to lose weight. But either way, it becomes more apparent daily that this guy knows his game and how to find and develop winning players to succeed in his system.

At the end of a wet, chilly weekend, that should be as comforting to the Big Orange Nation as a PB&J sandwich with a tall glass of milk. Especially if you don't have to get up at 2 a.m. to have it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com