Kaylen Stewart is getting looks and phone calls from a number of universities, including Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State and Memphis.
His coach at Brainerd, Brian Gwyn, says all receivers under 5-foot-10 should thank Wes Welker, the 5-9, 185-pounder who has starred for the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos.
"He showed that little guys can succeed in the [National Football] league," Gwyn said of Welker, an undrafted player out of Texas Tech.
Stewart, a math whiz, is a 5-8, 160-pound receiver/cornerback who also is getting attention from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Wofford, Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky and Mercer.
"He's probably a little small to play cornerback, but I think he can be a really good slot receiver at the next level," Gwyn said.
"I'll play anywhere Coach puts me," Stewart said.
It's probable that he'll be at receiver and cornerback, but it's possible he could show up at quarterback in a wildcat package and even at safety.
He'll be a four-year starter and has shown that toughness the little guys need. He's been knocked out of a game only once - blindsided as a 145-pound freshman - and he recalls the incident with pride.
"The guy got me. I didn't see him coming. I got up and made it to the sideline, and then I went back in the game," Stewart said.
He can't wait for the 2014 season to begin, even though the Class 3A Panthers open with Class 5A Ooltewah.
"Our motto is play fast, learn fast," he said. "We'll play up-tempo on both sides of the ball, and our goal is to stay together, be disciplined and play as a team."
- Ward Gossett
Head coach: Brian Gwyn (3-7 here and overall)
Last year: 3-7; last playoff appearance was second round of 2011 in Class 4A
Returning starters (O/D/K): 6/5/0
(all games at 7:30 Eastern unless noted)
Aug. 22 - at Ooltewah
Aug. 29 - at Ensworth, 8
Sept. 5 - Red Bank*
Sept. 12 - at Baylor
Sept. 19 - at East Ridge*
Sept. 26 - Austin-East
Oct. 3 - at Howard*
Oct. 10 - Central*
Oct. 17 - at Tyner*
Oct. 31 - at Hixson*
Control panel: Two of the three Panthers Gwyn hopes to lean on heavily are linemen - Jaquan Landry (6-4, 300, Jr.) and Cyrus Salazar (6-2, 255, So.) - and he says Brainerd's offense will go as the line goes. The Panthers, as usual, are loaded with skill guys including TE/DE Jamal Herndon (6-1, 210, So.). "Jamal might not have that flashy 40 speed yet, but he has football speed and excellent hands," Gwyn said.
Transfer WR/DB Ryheem Finley (6-0, 170, Sr.) "is a big-time track guy that went to state last year (for Howard)," Gwyn said. "He's a good-character guy from a good family." Two other transfers with big-time futures are LB/RB Jaylen Calloway (6-0, 190, Fr.) from Opelika, Ala., and RB/DB Robert Evans (5-11, 200, Jr.). "There's a good chance Calloway will start for us at outside linebacker, and Evans (5-11, 200, Jr.) is a big-time running back and he'll also play safety for us," the coach said. Evans is from Georgia.
After a disappointing start - six consecutive losses to the likes of Ooltewah, Ensworth and Baylor - the Panthers turned it around in 2013, winning three of their last four games. Those included a 28-26 win at Central for their second straight win and then a 14-12 victory over eventual 6-AA champion and Class 4A state quarterfinalist Hixson to end the season. "When the kids bought in and stopped listening to naysayers, things started falling into place," Gwyn said.
Gwyn believes the first half of the 2013 season was a feeling-out process, him getting to know the players and his coaches and them getting to know him and his expectations. "Part of the problem was not having winter workouts with them or spring practice - not getting the guys till summer - and I had to get the lay of the land, figure out who was what, who was just talking and who was going to actually support the program," he said.
The Panthers aren't that far removed from a playoff showing. They upset East Hamilton in the first round of the 2011 playoffs and ended that year 6-6. The last winning season (8-4) came under Marvin Jones in 2009. Gwyn is the program's third coach since veteran Eddie Lambert retired following the 2004 season.