It was somewhere along a quiet stretch of Interstate 75, on the drive back from Knoxville late Saturday night, that Tyrus Ward found himself lost in thought. As the headlights on his pickup truck guided Brainerd's football coach back home to Chattanooga, he glanced over at the passenger's seat and smiled when he saw Joseph Norwood, the reason for this whirlwind trip, reclined and fast asleep.
For nearly two months Ward and Norwood — Brainerd's all-state defensive back — have crisscrossed the Southeast, making visits to Tulane, Georgia Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Southern Mississippi, Georgia State, Vanderbilt and others.
Recruiting trips for coach and player are not unusual; countless other coaches travel with star players to help them navigate the process of deciding where to attend college and continue their football careers.
But in an age when every high school player's stat line and season highlights are updated and shared instantly on social media, Norwood is an enigma. Because he did not play football his junior year and had never played defense, he was an unknown in college coaching circles.
"That's the name you hear more than any other kid in the state," said one FBS-level college coach. "Nobody knew anything about this kid until some video started to get out late in the season, and now everybody is scrambling to get to know more because none of us want to miss the potential diamond in the rough."
Almost overnight Norwood went from zero college scholarship offers to 16, including MTSU, Southern Miss, Tulane, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Georgia State, Coastal Carolina and Massachusetts. National signing day is Wednesday, which hasn't given Norwood much time to wrap his mind around the rapid pace of the past few weeks.facebook
He's also been heavily recruited and evaluated by Georgia Tech, Nebraska and most recently Tennessee, where Norwood and Ward were asked to stay for a personal meeting with new Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt.
"He was supposed to visit Nebraska last weekend, but then I got a call from Coach Pruitt asking if Joseph would come to Knoxville so they could meet and talk," Ward said. "We were in his office for a long time, and you could tell by the questions he was asking that they are very interested. This was a kid who last spring didn't know how to get in a proper DB stance, and now we were sitting in the office of the head coach at Tennessee, who's telling Joseph how much they like him.
"Coach Pruitt was up front with us and said that they had one or two kids who were rated higher on their board but that as they evaluated everything they would let us know before signing day if they were going to offer."
What college coaches like most about the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Norwood are the same attributes that jumped out at Ward when he sat in the stands watching Brainerd's basketball team last February, shortly after he had accepted the job as football coach.
"He's just so athletic and versatile," said Ward, who also noted that Norwood has a 3.2 grade point average and scored a 19 on the ACT. "And it's all raw talent. Since he only played one year, nobody really knows just how good he could be yet, but he's got the size and length that every program in the country wants.
"I took him to work out with some of the top prospects in Nashville, and he held his own in every drill. These were guys with four stars by their names on the recruiting websites, and it didn't take long to see that he belonged right there with them. When I got home I told our staff it's up to us to put him in a position to showcase what he can do."
What Norwood did in his first year as a varsity defensive back, switching between cornerback and safety, was make 107 tackles, 10 for lost yardage and five interceptions, and he recovered three of the four fumbles he caused. He also averaged 14 yards per touch on offense and scored eight touchdowns.
"One thing I've tried to tell every coach that I've met is that they won't regret taking a chance on me," said Norwood, who clocked a laser time of 4.57 seconds in the 40-yard dash, won the long jump state championship last spring with a leap of 22 feet, 9 inches and averages a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in basketball.
"Some of the four- and five-star guys I've met on these visits seem like they take the opportunities for granted. That's not me," Norwood added. "I'm so hungry to show people that those stars by your name don't matter once you're on the field.
"I trust that God will lead me where I'm supposed to be, and I've got something inside that motivates and drives me to the point that I know wherever I wind up, there's no way I can fail."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.