Some sleepers are keepers

Anybody can state the obvious. InsideTennessee gives you the behind-the-scenes stories. Check out this article on the Vol football staff's success identifying unsung prospects it can develop into contributors:

Emmanuel Moseley (Greensboro, N.C.) was a 143-pound two-star cornerback prospect when Tennessee accepted his commitment last September. After adding 33 pounds and distinguishing himself in spring practice, he got a ton of first-team repetitions in preseason and was the first corner off the bench in Sunday night’s 2014 opener.

Owen Williams (Butler County Community College) was rated a two-star defensive tackle by Scout when the Vols accepted his commitment last December. Coming off a fine spring and a solid preseason camp, though, he is solidly entrenched as Tennessee’s No. 2 nose tackle.

Jashon Robertson (Nashville) was ranked No. 78 among high school defensive tackles by Scout when the Big Orange accepted his commitment last January. The true freshman switched to offense just two weeks ago but adapted so quickly that he started Sunday night’s opener at right guard.

Colton Jumper (Lookout Mountain) was a Scout two-star and unranked by two other recruiting services when Tennessee accepted him as an invited walk-on last January. He shocked Vol Nation by edging out four-star Gavin Bryant and winning the No. 2 job at middle linebacker behind four-year starter A.J. Johnson.

Five-star and four-star recruits are scarce, so recognizing two- and three-stars capable of thriving in your program is a valuable skill … a skill Tennessee’s staff apparently possesses.

“If you look at the NFL Draft, the draft is not full of five- and four-star guys,” Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “It’s full of a bunch of three-star guys that came to work every day.”

So how have Tennessee’s staffers been able to identify so-called “sleepers” such as Moseley, Williams, Robertson and Jumper — guys who lacked an imposing list of offers or a bunch of stars after their names?

“I think it’s having a recruiting profile, believing in what you see,” head coach Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “It’s getting them in a camp environment, seeing their competitive drive, their competitive character, evaluating anything and everything on them.”

Four unheralded athletes Jones coached while at Central Michigan are a perfect illustration of his recruiting profile. All excelled in college, all went on to play in the NFL and all share some key traits.

“They’re very, very smart,” Jones said. “We talk about the STI index – speed, toughness, instincts,” the Vols’ head man said. “You look at (offensive tackle) Joe Staley with the 49ers. You look at (offensive tackle) Eric Fisher (No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft). Those are individuals who have fit that mold. So do (linebacker) Nick Bellore of the New York Jets and (Kansas City Chiefs linebacker) Frank Zombo. You could go on and on and on.”

Some football players peak in high school, while others make significant progress during college. Vol coaches are always looking for prospects who fit the latter category, the kids with untapped potential.

“The key thing is projecting how they will develop, and you don’t have a crystal ball,” Jones said. “It’s looking at individuals and trying to project, ‘Where will he be two years from now? Where will he be three years from now?’”

Jones is willing to take some recruiting gambles based on his faith in conditioning coach Dave Lawson. That’s why Tennessee last February signed Moseley, at the time a spindly 143-pounder. In six months under Lawson’s guidance Moseley has packed on 33 pounds.

Secondary coach Willie Martinez wholly supported the signing of Moseley, despite his skinny frame.

“You look for athleticism first, then you get to know their character, their competitive spirit,” Martinez said. “I call it ‘having a bad case of the wants.’ They want to be great, want to be the best. We like the smart and tough kids. Those are the things we look for in the secondary – athleticism, toughness and physicality, then the smarts and instincts to see and make plays that maybe others don’t see.”

Tennessee also took a chance on Owen Williams, a 6-footer whose stature concerned some rival recruiters.

“His height probably scared a lot of people away,” Vol defensive line coach Steve Stripling said, “but he plays with tremendous leverage and he’s the strongest kid on the team. When you play with leverage and you’re that strong you can be a really dominating player.”

After committing early to Vanderbilt, Jashon Robertson dropped off a lot of schools’ radar. When he re-opened his recruitment following the departure of head coach James Franklin for Penn State last January, however, Tennessee recruiters were hot on his trail because he has the intangibles they prize.

“It’s not just measurables – height, weight, 40 speed and all that,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. “What’s truly important to them? How competitive are they? Do they like to win? Do they like to work? What’s the family background? All of those things are important in the process.”

Two things that are not important in the process – at least for Tennessee – are stars and offers.

“We just evaluate a guy’s film and bring in the ones we think are really good, regardless of whether he’s got 40 offers or two,” tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder said. “We don’t really buy into the stars and we don’t buy into how many offers someone has. We just go off of our evaluation. We’ve got a great coaching staff, guys who are very experienced and have a great eye for talent. We’re going to trust our judgment over the consensus. We’re going to trust the people in our room.

“When we watch film of somebody we don’t say, ‘Well, how many offers does he have? Who else has offered him?’ That’s not part of the conversation unless it’s just to determine how difficult it’s going to be landing this guy. We’re evaluating and bringing in the guys that we think are the best guys in the country, regardless of the stars and other offers.”

Thigpen agrees, noting: “We trust our evaluations. You can’t follow the herd and say, ‘Alabama and Georgia and Vanderbilt offered him, so we need to offer him.’ You bring him in, see if he’s a high-character kid, see if he can retain the stuff you put on the board, see if his mom and dad are strong in the household. All of those things play a role when we bring a kid in.”

Although Tennessee is enjoying success identifying two-stars and three-stars it can develop, the Vol staff recognizes that four- and five-star recruits generally involve less risk.

“Obviously, you want to go and find the guys that are freaks – guys that have the measurables and all of that,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said, “But I think the majority of your teams are made up of hard-working, gritty football players that have to work a little extra in the weight room, run a few extra sprints. Those are the guys that make up the majority of football teams around the country.”

Asked if that’s the kind of player he was as a Florida Gators running back in the late 1990s, Gillespie nodded.

“Yeah, I was the guy they always wanted to recruit over,” he said. “Every year they tried to sign a guy that was a little bit taller, a little bit bigger, a little bit faster. But I was the guy that did the extra running after practice, the extra film study.”

Most of the guys who do the extra running and extra film study are two-stars and three-stars who lack elite talent. Sometimes, though, a prospect comes along who has a tremendous skill level and the dedication level to match. That’s Robert Gillespie’s dream recruit.

“Once we get the high-caliber athletes – the five-stars – and make them have that same work ethic,” the Vol aide said, “I think that’s what will make us different.”

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