Austin Pope grew up in Sevierville, a short car ride away from Tennessee’s campus. He plays high school football about 30 minutes from Neyland Stadium and has witnessed the unabated passion that explodes from Vol Nation when the leaves start changing colors in the fall.
Pope’s close proximity to Tennessee made his most recent offer all the more special, as Butch Jones extended a scholarship to the hometown tight end over the phone Saturday.
“It’s pretty cool, especially UT,” Pope said. “I mean, it’s a big-time SEC school and I guess every kid wants to get offered by their hometown team, because I grew up here my whole life.”
Despite living a short drive from campus away, the Christian Academy of Knoxville star admits he didn’t grow up a zealous Tennessee supporter like the many others around him. But Pope, who said he prefers watching multiple games on TV, said he’s also been able to take in a game day in Knoxville from a fan’s perspective.
“I was never diehard orange and white, but it’s always cool that everyone goes to the games that you know, your friends and family,” he told IT. “Then you get offered from them and everyone is kind of pushing you that way. It’s pretty cool to have that opportunity to play at such a prestigious program like that.”
Pope’s high school offense runs the spread, so he’s used to splitting out wide for one-on-one match-ups and seldom puts his hand to the ground. He also moonlights as a linebacker, the position Louisville and Pittsburgh are interested in him playing. The Vols, on the other hand, see a big-bodied tight end with nice hands unafraid to snatch a ball at its highest point.
While shuffling through his nearly 20 offers, the athletic Pope has established clear criteria for what he’s looking for in a program. He plans to take a pragmatic approach to his recruitment process — one that values playing time as the most important factor.
“Definitely one is playing time. Like I told everybody else, I don't want to sit two or three years and then play,” Pope said. “I’m willing to put my time in and all that stuff, but I don’t want to be one of those guys that starts their junior year. Early playing time is definitely a big deal to me.”
After gauging which team would be the most beneficial to his time on the gridiron, Pope said he would then take into account a program’s players and fan base.
“No. 2 would definitely be, I’ve got to like the people I’m going to be around. You’re going to be around those people every day,” he said.
“No. 3 has to be a crazy fan base. Everybody loves to play inside a stadium where the fans are just absolutely nuts and screaming their heads off and just an awesome game day atmosphere.”
Until he finds the place that meets all three of those needs, the senior will focus on improving his game on both sides of the ball and cutting his offer list down to five schools.
“I'm going to take my officials and find those top five places where I’m going to go,” Pope said. “I’m definitely going to have to narrow it down in this process and see where God leads me.”