Simms wound up going 2-8 as a starting quarterback at Tennessee, yielding the first-team job to true freshman Tyler Bray in 2010 and to true freshman Justin Worley in 2011. Newton fared a bit better. He went 14-0 as the starting QB at Auburn in 2010, winning a national championship and a Heisman Trophy in his only season on The Plains. Oh, yeah, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, too.
What’s the moral of this story? Some JUCOs fill a stop-gap role (a la Simms) and some fill a starring role (a la Newton). Tennessee’s coaches thought they had a game manager when they signed Simms. Auburn’s coaches knew they had a game changer when they signed Newton.
“I knew we had something when Cam came,” recalled Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, Auburn’s safeties coach in 2010. “I’d seen him in high school. I told some people ‘Go ahead and get your SEC Championship Game tickets because we’re going to win it.’ He was way different than anything we had on our football team … the one missing piece we needed. He could run it, he could throw it, and he pushed everybody to excel.”
While Newton was giving Auburn a championship-caliber offense, tackle Nick Fairley was giving the 2010 Tigers a championship-caliber defense. He won the Lombardi Award as the premier defensive lineman in college football and was voted Outstanding Defensive Player of the BCS championship game. Like Newton, Fairley was a JUCO, having transferred to Auburn after one season at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. Unlike Newton, however, Fairly wasn’t an immediate hit. In fact, as a first-year Tiger in 2009, he started just two of 13 games.
“His first year Nick was just average,” Thigpen recalled. “There was a couple of times that we thought about putting him off the team because he was a distraction. But he put it all together (as a junior in 2010) and became unblockable.”
Several of Tennessee’s finest players the past 30 years were transfers from the junior college ranks – receivers Anthony Miller and Cordarrelle Patterson, running back Charlie Garner, tight end Mychal Rivera, offensive lineman Mercedes Hamilton, defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona, defensive ends Chuck Smith, Chris Mims and Leonard Little, defensive backs Dale Carter and Gibril Wilson. For each JUCO success story, however, there have been two or three duds.
With several areas needing a quick fix for 2014 Tennessee signed four JUCOs last winter – offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, wide receiver Von Pearson, defensive tackle Owen Williams and linebacker Chris Weatherd.
Weatherd, a transfer from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, made his presence felt on the opening scrimmage play of the 2014 season, assisting on a five-yard tackle for loss on Utah State’s first snap. Unusually quick for a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, he recorded 2 tackles and a pass breakup in Game 2 against Arkansas State.
“He brings something that we don't have, which is an uncanny knack for rushing the passer,” Thigpen said. “I mean, he's as slithery as they come, and he's got really good balance. It's really hard to get him off of his feet. He plays well, has great burst. We've got a role for him, and his role will continue to grow.”
The first two games have seen Weatherd play outside linebacker, rush end and even some tackle in obvious passing situations. That’s amazing, considering that Clearinghouse issues kept him from participating in spring practice and most of the summer workouts.
"We wish we would've had him here this summer because he'd probably be a lot further along,” Thigpen said, “but he has something (speed off the edge) that a lot of guys on our football team don't have. And he can hold up when we put him inside the line."
Basically, Tennessee’s staff felt a sense of desperation when it targeted Weatherd during the recruiting process last fall.
“We decided to go after Chris Weatherd at linebacker because we needed an older guy,” Thigpen recalled. “We needed an older, mature guy in the room. At that time A.J. Johnson was talking about leaving (for the 2014 NFL Draft) and Curt Maggitt was coming off an injury. The oldest guy in the room would’ve been (sophomore Jalen) Reeves-Maybin, who had just moved to the position. You want to have your foundation based on young guys but we needed an older guy just because of the uncertainty of whether A.J. would come back or not.”
To Tennessee’s surprise, Weatherd is providing versatility, in addition to maturity and quickness.
“He's a guy that gives us a little bit more speed on the field, and that's really something we were lacking,” Thigpen said. “There are a lot of things we can do with him, and we're going to continue to be creative with him."
Pearson has a chance to be truly special. After catching three passes for 27 yards in Game 1, the transfer from Feather River College in California reeled in four passes for a team-high 71 yards in Game 2. The 6-foot-3, 183-pounder exhibits All-SEC potential but must sit out Saturday’s game at No. 4 Oklahoma due to a high-ankle sprain. He will be missed.
"Any time you take an individual the likes of Von Pearson out of your lineup that's a setback for you,” Vol head coach Butch Jones said. “Not just what he's been able to do on the field, but in the locker room. He's extremely competitive. He loves football, needs it in his life, has a smile on his face every day. You can't get him down, so I think we'll miss that as much as his playmaking abilities.”
Like Pearson, Williams made a big splash in Game 2 versus Arkansas State. Currently the No. 2 nose guard, the transfer from Butler Community College in Kansas led all Vol linemen in tackles (5) and recorded 2 of Tennessee’s 3 sacks.
"It was great to see,” Jones said. “He had about three plays in a row, back-to-back-to-back, that really impacted the game. That's the thing that we really focus on: How are you impacting the game when you're on the field? Are you making impactful plays? He was able to do that, and I think he'll really gain some valuable confidence from that."
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling admits the Vols had gaping holes in their front four when they decided to dip into the JUCO ranks for Williams.
“We went in knowing defensive tackle was going to be a primary position of need for some older kids and, luckily, he (Owen Williams) is here,” Stripling said. “That was a situation we knew about. We like to be very selective on junior college players. They have to fill a need, a niche, a spot on the roster. We don’t recruit ‘em just to recruit ‘em.”
Blair is still trying to find his niche on the team. The 6-foot-8, 300-pounder from Garden City (Kansas) Community College was supposed to win the left tackle job vacated by Tiny Richardson’s premature jump to the NFL. Blair did not see the field in Tennessee’s first two games of 2014, however, and may be facing a redshirt season.
Butch Jones would prefer to build his team around four-year high school signees. When there are gaps in a roster, however, sometimes the best option is a quick fix from the JUCO ranks. Still, the head man says junior-college players must meet certain criteria before Tennessee will consider them.
“Do they fit the profile?” Jones said. “Can they fit the structure of our football program? What do they value? What’s their character like? What’s their competitive character? It starts with people first and academics. It’s a whole profile we look for.”
Owen Williams, Von Pearson and Chris Weatherd seem to fit the profile. The jury’s still out on Dontavius Blair.