As University of Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel prepares for his third season in Knoxville and continues to reshape the program with his system and through recruiting, it's clear that he's keeping a close eye on the Chattanooga area for potential prospects.
It also seems the area's top high school stars are listening when the offers come in from the Volunteers.
With the decade-plus prior to Heupel's arrival yielding inconsistent results — at best — on the field for the Vols, many local prep football stars chose to go elsewhere, and sometimes significantly farther away, when they made their college choice. Now, with the storied Southeastern Conference program back in the national spotlight favorably on the strength of a 2022 season with an 11-2 record that included an Orange Bowl victory, Chattanooga-area stars are looking toward Rocky Top again.
"I think the Tennessee brand is big now. When you mention college football, you have to mention Tennessee," said Bradley Central senior Boo Carter, who on Saturday night announced his commitment to the Vols, eliminating Colorado, Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon from a top five he revealed in late December.
"I believe the Vols will continue to make good runs and get players to the next level. My dream is to win a Heisman and national championship in college."
The connection between the Chattanooga area and Knoxville has shown up in the current recruiting cycle, with the Vols landing commitments from McCallie defensive lineman Carson Gentle and Bradley Central defensive back Marcus Goree Jr. Tennessee is also pursuing Baylor School wide receiver Amari Jefferson ahead of his final prep season with the Red Raiders and, looking ahead to the class of 2025, at least two Chattanooga-area juniors in Brainerd's Martels Carter Jr. and Baylor's Cameron Sparks.
No matter where Sparks winds up in college, Tennessee will have played a role for the 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver in his time as a recruit.
"I went to a camp at Tennessee the first year that Coach Heupel was there, and that was my first offer from any school. From there, the recruiting process took off for me," said Sparks, who has another SEC offer from two-time reigning national champion Georgia, as well as offers from many other Power Five programs, including Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Red Raiders scored a combined 124 points in three playoff games last fall, including a 38-34 victory against Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy in the TSSAA Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl state championship game at Finley Stadium. Baylor's offense could be even tougher to stop in the passing game this year with Sparks in line for a potential breakout season as a junior.
He has dominated in offseason showcases, including an Under Armour camp in Atlanta and at the Battle 7v7 New Orleans, where he caught four touchdowns in three games for Tennessee Select, and he is a five-star recruit in 247Sports.com's composite rankings, with Sparks listed as the No. 2 prospect in the state and No. 23 in the country.
Sparks also used social media to turn some heads when he posted a picture on his Instagram account of himself beside Arik Gilbert, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who transferred to Nebraska after spending the past two years at Georgia and his freshman season at LSU.
"I passed the eye test standing next to Arik, who is a big guy," Sparks said. "We both have trained with (former Georgia, NFL and CFL receiver) Terrence Edwards, who has helped me a lot over my football career, along with my dad, who has coached me a bunch. After we posted that picture, a lot of coaches started following me. From there, I started to catch more eyes doing well at Georgia and Tennessee's camps."
Defenses will have their hands full in the red zone trying to stop Sparks, who can box out defenders across the middle to make catches in traffic and can also win one-on-one jump balls on the outside. His skills there could be a nod to his favorite player growing up: Calvin Johnson, who starred in the Atlanta area's prep scene and at Georgia Tech before becoming the all-time leading receiver for the Detroit Lions.
Sparks' physicality played a part in a huge rivalry win for the Red Raiders last season, but the key moment didn't come with him at receiver. Sparks is also a safety, and he made one of Baylor's biggest defensive plays of the season by chasing down a McCallie running back and punching the ball out from the 12-yard line and through the back of the end zone for a touchback, which prevented a Blue Tornado score and set up a Red Raiders touchdown drive in their 31-27 comeback victory.
Sparks plans to take his recruitment slow and announce his top five college options before his senior season in 2024, but even as he considers his personal football plans, he remains focused on helping the Red Raiders succeed.
"I love the college football atmosphere and hearing the band play while you are playing," Sparks said. "I am excited about the future. Going into this season, my teammates and I are just trying to block out everybody talking about going back to back. We don't want to let distractions in. We are ready to work."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.