Two-star to No. 1 draft pick

InsideTennessee gives you the stories behind the stories. Check out this intriguing tale of how a Vol aide found a true diamond in the rough:

Don Mahoney saw an underdeveloped lineman who packed just 245 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame. He saw a guy with a lot to learn. He saw a guy accorded just 2 stars and ranked No. 132 among America's guard prospects by

But Mahoney also saw potential. That's why four years ago he convinced his boss, Central Michigan head coach Butch Jones, to sign a lightly regarded high school senior named Eric Fisher from Rochester, Mich.

If it was a reach it was an awfully good reach. Fisher's talent and work ethic combined to make him the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday night's NFL Draft.

Mahoney, now in his first year as offensive line coach for the Tennessee Vols, clearly saw potential in Fisher that other observers overlooked.

"Number 1, I was impressed with his overall ability to bend for as big as he is," Mahoney said.

Central Michigan wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, who now holds the same position at Tennessee, recruited Fisher's area of Michigan back in 2009. The assistant was impressed with the athleticism Fisher exhibited on the football field and the basketball floor that Fisher was invited to attend a CMU camp. One look was all Mahoney needed.

"I was so impressed with how well he could bend for how big he was," Mahoney recalled. "He showed the toughness on film. That's the thing, first and foremost, I always want to see — toughness. And how athletic he was really impressed me."

Still, there were red flags. For instance, almost no one else shared Mahoney's enthusiasm for Fisher.

"At the time there was only ourselves and one other school (Eastern Michigan) that had an offer," Mahoney recalled. "Some were afraid of that. If 10 people offer, then everybody feels good about offering, instead of just saying, 'Hey, we trust what we see in our evaluations.'"

Although Fisher's fan club was small, Mahoney continued to gain respect for the lightly regarded prospect.

"We did our background with the high school coach — work ethic, academics, all of those things — and everything checked out," Mahoney recalled. "And I loved the way he worked at camp. He was very workmanlike, didn't hardly say anything at all. Then when we did one-on-one stuff, he was very competitive. You could see that losing mattered to him. He had a lot of qualities, along with being so athletic, that were attractive."

The fact Fisher came from a good family helped seal the deal.

"I did the in-home visits with him and his parents," Mahoney said. "He has a tremendous mom, and I spent time with his father, as well. They're good people."

Because he was somewhat raw, Fisher was ticketed for a redshirt year as a true freshman at Central Michigan in 2009. Then fate intervened.

Strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson has been instrumental in helping linemen develop for the next level.
(Danny Parker/
"We got to Week 11 and we were playing a Wednesday night game against Ball State on ESPN2," Mahoney recalled. "Our starting left tackle got injured the week before. We never like to play true freshmen but Coach Jones brought him (Fisher) in, sat him down and said, 'We hate to burn your redshirt year but we're in the title hunt. Are you opposed to playing?' He said no."

Fisher started his first college game at left tackle against Ball State and helped CMU prevail. He protected Dan LeFevour's blind side so well, in fact, that the quarterback completed 25 of 28 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Fisher started again the next week in the regular-season finale against Northern Illinois, with a trip to the Mid-America Conference championship game at stake.

"He starts at left tackle against the No. 1 defense in the conference, and we win that game," Mahoney recalled. "He played really well starting those two games for us but he really should have a redshirt year (remaining)."

Jones left to take the reins at Cincinnati following Fisher's freshman season at CMU, and Mahoney joined him. Thus, he never got to see what a magnificent player his protege' would become.

"It's a great story," Mahoney said. "I wish him the best. I wish him all he can get. He's very deserving. A very good friend of mine (Mike Cummings) is coaching the offensive line at Central Michigan now, and I'm happy for him because I know he did a tremendous job in developing Eric, as well. I'm just so happy for him."

Now packing 306 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame, Eric Fisher bears little resemblance to the skinny kid Mahoney recruited so enthusiastically four years ago.

"He put the weight on," Mahoney said. "That goes back to my time with Coach Jones and (strength) Coach (Dave) Lawson. I saw a guy come in weighing 245 pounds that, even going into his freshman year weighed 275 and was functional at that weight. There was a lot of work put in by Lawson and by him, as well."

And that's how an unsung two-star prospect became the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Here's video from InsideTennessee of Mahoney talking about the Tennessee O-line earlier this spring:

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