Sign 'em and play 'em

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In addition to a gift for recruiting young talent, first-year Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has a knack for playing it.

Given how poor the Vols' linebacker play was in 2012, don't be surprised if Thigpen signs a couple of quality 'backers come February, then pencils them into the starting lineup come September. He has placed his faith in true freshmen before.

"I have no problem; I've done it in the past," he said recently. "At the University of North Carolina I had two linebackers that came in as true freshmen and started — Bruce Carter, who now starts with the Dallas Cowboys, and Quan Sturdivant, who was with the Arizona Cardinals (sixth-round draftee in 2011).

"I had no problem with throwing them out there and getting them to learn. Really, that's the only way to learn."

Before "throwing them out there," however, Thigpen must sign the caliber of linebacker who can come in and contribute from Day 1. Based on his reputation as an ace recruiter, he should be up to the task.

"Recruiting is all about relationships with people," he said. "I do background checks, all the way back to your grandmother and grandfather, the restaurants in your town. When we recruit you we find out every little thing about you. Then, when you come here, it feels like home."

Thigpen brings an interesting background to his new job at Tennessee. He played college ball at North Carolina in the 1980s, when the Vols were literally raiding the Tar Heel State for elite talent.

"When I played ball at the University of North Carolina, that was always the team ... Tennessee," he recalled. "They would come into our state and take the best players out of the state -- the Heath Shulers (Bryson City), the Jay Grahams (Concord). They took a lot of great players from us."

Thigpen learned and played under Cookeville native Mack Brown (pictured) when the two were at North Carolina.
(Danny Parker/
Thigpen's coach at North Carolina was Mack Brown, who went on to win a national title as head man at Texas.

"I learned a lot from him — how to have relationships and non-stop communication, hard work, dedication, always keeping a clean image," Thigpen said, adding that he still calls Brown for career advice.

"When I talked to him about this job, he said you've got to go to Tennessee," Thigpen recalled. "I had a couple of other offers from around the country but he said, 'Thig, the SEC is where it's at. That's where you need to go. Tennessee's got great tradition.'"

Thigpen began his coaching career in Nashville, working with Tennessee State's linebackers in 2000. He remembers eagerly hoping to challenge the cross-state Vols in those days.

"I was young and really naive, so I was thinking, 'Man! I would really like to go up against those guys and try to snatch a player or two' but there was no way," he recalled. "On Signing Day if you had a kid committed for a year and a half, then Tennessee called him on Saturday, he was going (to Knoxville)."

Thigpen's attitude toward the state university has changed dramatically since then.

"I look at it differently now," he said with a smile. "If you've got an opportunity in this state, this is where you want to be. This is the University of Tennessee. We are the premier school in the state."

Thigpen left TSU after one year to coach defensive backs under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green (2001-02). They remain friends to this day.

"Urban was always telling the kids to never, ever turn your back and think that someone else is doing your job," Thigpen recalled. "He was really good at making sure that you communicated non-stop with the kids, that you always knew what they were doing and that you be demanding of them."

After two years on staff at Illinois (2003-04), he returned to his alma mater and coached North Carolina's linebackers under John Bunting (2005-06) and Butch Davis (2007-08).

Thigpen spent the next four years at Auburn, winning a national championship in 2010 but losing his job when head man Gene Chizik was fired following the 2012 season.

"When I was at Auburn we had a difference-maker on offense (quarterback Cam Newton) and a difference-maker on defense (tackle Nick Fairley)," Thigpen noted. "At Tennessee we should have two or three of those difference-makers on offense and on defense."

The key question: Can Thigpen convince difference-makers to join a Vol program that has gone 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 the past five seasons? He believes he can.

"What we sold at Auburn was a lot of tradition and family," he said. "And the tradition is longer here at Tennessee. The name is big. Football is big here."

See some of what Thigpen said about the recruiting process in the video below:

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