“Me and Todd used to go to pre-school together,” Griffin told InsideTennessee.
Even at age 5 the two found themselves playing football, a sport they attacked with gusto.
“People don’t believe it,” Griffin said with a smile, “but we really were.”
So, who was the better football player at age 5?
“We were both pretty good athletes for our age,” Griffin said diplomatically.
The two parted ways when Griffin’s family moved to Charlotte but fate eventually brought them back together. Kelly signed with Tennessee a year ago and wound up starting three games as a freshman safety last fall. Griffin signed with the Vols in December but says his friendship with Kelly had no bearing on the decision.
“We’ve kept communicating but that didn’t really play a factor in whether or not I wanted to go to Tennessee,” he said. “It just ended up that we’re at the same college, and that’s pretty cool.”
Although 12 years have passed since they attended pre-school together, Griffin and Kelly quickly re-established their childhood bond.
“Oh, yeah. We hang out all the time,” Griffin told IT. “We’re always together.”
Having one season of college ball behind him, Kelly gave his long-time friend some tips on adapting to campus life in general and football at Tennessee in particular.
“He’s telling me just stay down, keep grinding. It’s going to get hard sometimes but just keep pushing,” Griffin said. “You’ve got your brothers around to guide you through it, so just stay focused and do what you’ve got to do.”
Griffin’s father, Steve, played collegiately for Clemson from 1982-86. For a while Stephen appeared likely to attend his dad’s alma mater.
“Oh, yeah,” he recalled. “Before the recruiting process started, Clemson offered me and I thought, ‘Man! This is my dream school. This is where I always wanted to go.’ I thought that was where I was going to end up but, of course, I wanted to take visits, evaluate my options, and this (Tennessee) was the better place.”
Even after he went public for Tennessee, however, Griffin continued to be recruited. The University of North Carolina wasn’t ready to concede defeat. It tried hard to turn him, so he gave the Tar Heels some consideration.
“I just had to re-evaluate my decision,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look at other options to reaffirm your first decision. It was a little stressful but I ended up making the right decision.”
Before enrolling at Tennessee, however, he made an official visit to the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.
|TENNESSEE SAFETY TODD KELLY JR.|
“I went through the pros and cons,” Griffin recalled. “I wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for me and my family. With North Carolina being close to home, it was kind of hard to just put out the window. But I love it here (Tennessee). It’s not far from home, either. This was the best decision for me. This is where I felt most comfortable.”
Since enrolling and starting classes, he feels even better about his decision to be a Vol.
“It’s been great,” he said. “It’s been a blessing to be able to live out my dreams, playing at a big school like this. It’s been awesome.”
Asked what tipped the scales in Tennessee’s favor, Griffin fired off a litany of reasons.
“The coaches, the players, the atmosphere … everything,” he said. “I love it here. I used to live here when I was younger, so it was kind of like coming home.”
Showing maturity and foresight, Griffin decided to graduate early from Charlotte’s South Mecklenberg High School, so he could enroll in college mid-term and participate in spring practice prior to his freshman year of eligibility.
“I talked to my coach my junior year a little bit before I committed,” he recalled. “Wherever I ended up I was going to enroll early – to get in the system, get a little bit bigger, so I could hopefully make an impact in the fall.”
Griffin was pleasantly surprised to learn that nine other signees enrolled in UT at mid-term. Having four fellow freshman defenders to hang out with is a plus.
“Definitely,” he said. “It’s good to have offensive guys, too, because they’re going through the same stuff.”
In addition to his fellow newcomers, Griffin is making friends with several Vol veterans who have reached out to him.
“Cam Sutton, Todd Kelly … all of the DBs have really embraced me and made me a part of the team,” he said. “I feel really good. I’m thankful for that.”
Tennessee returns its top three safeties from 2014 – starters Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, plus part-time starter Kelly – but Griffin believes he can contribute. Asked to identify his strengths as a defensive back, the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder answered without hesitation:
“My athleticism, my ball skills, my range and my physicality.”
Griffin speaks with Knoxville media