Despite the lack of pigskin pedigrees, these four unsung prospects have each broken into the playing rotation at their respective position in their first two years on campus and figure prominently in Tennessee's future football plans.
Credit belongs to UT's coaching staff for seeing the potential of these underrated talents and maintaining contact until the opportunity came to offer them. It's also revealing that good fortune played a key role in their availability to the Vols. It seems in recruiting as in life it is sometimes better to be lucky than good.
Take the case of Stewart who has earned a starting cornerback job as a redshirt freshman. He first emerged as a prospect after a good junior season at Potomac High School in Dumfries, Va., where he rushed for 1,500 yards. He followed that up with 1,147 yards as a senior and committed early to Virginia before other teams got a chance to compete for him. It looked like the Cavaliers had a fast tailback with a couple of solid seasons at the high school level that needed to get much bigger to become a featured ball carrier in college.
What Tennessee assistant Larry Slade remembered about Stewart was from film he had seen when he was a sophomore at Shipley High School in Florida. That Stewart didn't carry the ball but played defense, displaying great transitional ability as a cover corner. That Stewart intercepted 11 passes in his second season as a starter and exhibited excellent instincts for breaking on the football.
But when Stewart transferred to Potomac he brought with him the type of speed Coach Ben Stutler needed at tailback and the athletic ability to fill in at quarterback and handle all return duties. Stewart responded well to the move and became too valuable to the offense to be used in anything other than rare spot duty at corner. As far as recruiters were concerned Stewart was a tailback and he didn't have a big enough reputation outside of the commonwealth to attract a lot of attention.
That opened the door for Slade to continue pursuing Stewart with the caveat of becoming a cornerback at Tennessee instead of a tailback at Virginia. Stewart didn't have a strong allegiance to the Virginia program having spent most of his life in Florida and was receptive to the overtures.
The Vols were finalists for North Carolina Parade All-American corner A.J. Davis who eventually committed to North Carolina before changing his mind and signing with N.C. State. Anticipating that loss, UT brought Stewart in for a quickly arranged official visit. He was offered soon after and decided to become a Volunteer.
"I told coach (Larry) Slade he's going to have his best football ahead of him," Stutler after Stewart signed with the Vols. "With the combination of natural ability and the raw speed and strength and all the attention with coaching, he's going to get a whole lot better and he's good now. I just look for him to have a great college career and to improve and be a better college player than he was a high school player, simply because he can concentrate on one area instead of having to do so many things. He's a good cover corner," Stutler said. "He has great closing speed and breaks on the ball real well. He has great feet. I think he'll end up being a good corner for them."
Something similar happened with Mitchell who was only rated the No. 38 prospect in Virginia entering his senior season at Lake Taylor High School. He played outside linebacker as a junior and most schools saw him as a tweener — too small for defensive end and two slow for outside linebacker. In fact the only Division I schools offering Mitchell was a tight end and he was actually entertaining the idea of going to a Division II school. That's when Lake Taylor head coach Hank Swayers decided to do something about it.
"I thought he could play and I didn't know what was going on," Sawyer confessed. "I started questioning my own ability to evaluate players. I knew what I was seeing at games and he almost signed with a 1AA school and a couple of other smaller schools. I said: ‘Son, trust me on this, don't sign, just wait until I can put this film together and get it out."
Sawyer put together a highlight tape of Mitchell playing middle linebacker as a senior and one of the people he sent it to was long time acquaintance Larry Slade. Apparently Slade liked what he saw and tried to get in touch with Mitchell but ran into an obstacle.
"What happened was that he got his phone number changed and we kind of lost contact," said Sawyer. "But Lawrence Slade stayed on him because he knew what kind of player he was. He just had to convince the people in Knoxville that I've got a sleeper here that you're going to be surprised by. When they saw the film on him, they all agreed."
What Tennessee saw was a marginal prospect who had grown into a 6-3, 235-pound middle linebacker with 4.6 speed who was making plays all over the field.
"When he moved inside he just started making plays sideline to sideline," Sawyer explained. "Seldom do you find a kid that can move from outside to inside and make that kind of impact for you. He started intimidating backs. You've got a linebacker that can run a 4.6 with his size, the backs started running away from him. But when you play inside they can't run away from you."
The Vols top rated player at the linebacker position was Parade All-American Ahmad Brooks who led Tennessee to believe he would commit before calling a press conference to announce for Virginia. In the end, Sawyer believes Tennessee will get the last laugh.
"I'd put him up against Ahmad Brooks any day," Sawyer said. "I think he's a little better. Brooks is more of an outside linebacker. Mitchell can overcome some mismatches at middle linebacker with his ability to cover.
"He will make some noise in Knoxville quickly. He'll come ready to play. He's a student of the game. I teach my linebackers to call the defenses about 95 percent of the time. He calls the defenses when they come out of the huddle."
Jason Hall wasn't consider a Division I prospect entering his senior season in 2001, but Tennessee coaches saw him during game at Chattanooga McCallie and liked the way he moved on the football field. They told him they would continue to monitor him as a senior and Hall had all the incentive he needed to turn himself into a prospect.
"He's a guy with great natural ability and he's always done what we wanted him to do, but it was a minimum, frankly, up until after his junior year," McCallie head coach Ralph Potter said when describing Hall's transformation. "In the winter of his junior year, I think he realized how good he could be and he grew up a little bit as far as maturity is concerned. From January through August he just really went all out out as far as his effort and his workouts. He just applied himself, whereas, before while he would do what we asked, he didn't do any extra and he didn't do it with the intensity he did last year."
With Hall's maturation process fully underway, he pushed in offseason conditioning and weight training as never before and produced positive results in both size and strength. UT coaches took further notice of him during the spring evaluation period, but they wanted to see how his effort manifested itself on the field of competition before offering a scholarship.
"Tennessee coaches looked at him last spring and they thought he was a possibility," Potter said, "but they wanted to see how he would do in the fall. He gained about 25 pounds and actually got a little bit faster over the summer. So he ended up being about 6-4, 240 and running a 4.7 and Tennessee saw him against Norte Dame High School rushing the passer and that's when they got real interested in him."
The Vols offered Hall before the recruiting competition could set in and he rewarded their faith by lettering as a true freshman. He now weighs 270 and backs up Constantin Ritzmann at right defensive end.
Finally, Will Revill was seen as a marginal linebacker prospect in high school and who attracted attention from Auburn and a few Division II schools. He was reportedly seriously considering Western Kentucky when Tennessee came in with an offer which he accepted. Revill lettered as a redshirt freshman and has become solidly entrenched behind senior Troy Fleming this season.
Not all reaches turn out that well, but Tennessee has had its share of success with prospects that didn't excite the fans until they reached the field of play.