In terms of percentages, the Volunteers have had more success in Arkansas as in any other southern state, including Tennessee. No, they haven't signed as many prospects from the Natural State as they have from North Carolina, Georgia or the Volunteer State, but the percentage of starters is significantly higher.
Since 1991, the Vols have signed seven players from Arkansas and five went on to become starters while the other two are well on their way to duplicating that feat. Wide receiver Bret Smith, is in the rotation as a true sophomore after lettering last year as a freshman and, linebacker James Turner of Augusta, Ark., is slated to see action as a true freshman this fall. Redshirt freshman Rashaun Fellows, Smith's teammate at Warren High School, will get the nod at corner against UNLV. Cedric Houston of Clarendon, Ark., has been a two-year starter and Tennessee's leading rusher in 2002 and 2003 at tailback. Defensive tackle Greg Jones, of Jonesboro, Ark., signed with Tennessee in 2002 and became a starter as a true sophomore. Offensive lineman Reggie Coleman, also from Jonesboro, signed with Tennessee in 1999 and became a two-year starter. He was preceded by the third Jonesboro prospect, O-lineman Leslie Ratliffe, who became a two-year starter after signing with UT in 1991.
In July, Tennessee added its third commitment from the tiny town of Warren when wide receiver/cornerback Ricardo Kemp pledged to become a Vol. Kemp was named to Arkansas' preseason all-state yesterday. He caught 28 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns as a junior in addition to playing an outstanding cover corner. He has been a starter for the Lumberjacks since 2002 when they won the state title.
Last year the Vols finished a close second for Arkansas's top defensive player, tackle Fred Bledsoe of Little Rock Central High School, and were third behind Arkansas and Nebraska for the state's top offensive talent — fullback Peyton Hillis of Conway.
Both Houston and Smith, 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, 4.5, were high school all-Americans that were rated the top players in the state when they inked with the Vols. Tennessee is taking dead aim at the top target in Arkansas again this year in Fort Smith Southside wide receiver Slick Shelley. The 6-foot-4, 197-pound Shelley caught 62 passes for 873 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior and returned 21 kickoffs for 611 yards and a TD.
Shelley, who is from Berlin, Germany, is from a military family and quickly made the adjustment to Class-5A high school football. As a sophomore he pulled down 56 passes for 1,019 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averages 16 yards per reception and has caught at least one pass in 25 consecutive games. In consecutive games as a junior vs. Van Buren and Bentonville, Shelley made six receptions for 139 yards and three touchdowns and eight catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns. In a game against Broken Arrow, Okla., he hauled in 10 passes for 82 yards and three TDs. As a sophomore against the same squad, Shelley had six receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. During that same season in a playoff game against perennial power Pine Bluff, Shelley had eight catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns. In four post season contests that season, he caught 23 passes for 351 yards and six touchdowns. In a 2002 playoff game against Little Rock McClellan Shelley finished with five receptions for 62 yards and a score. However every catch came on a third down and produced first downs or touchdowns.
"He's a competitor," said Fort Smith Northside head coach Darrell Henry. "He showed that in the state championship game when he ran the wrong route but still made the touchdown catch. He wanted the ball."
Slick actually inherited his nickname from his father, Raymond "Slick" Shelley, who was a smooth operator on the basketball court.
"I guess that when he was playing sports, too, he was so smooth on the court that he got the nickname Slick," Shelley said. "My mom liked it, so they gave it to me. In the beginning, I didn't like it. But I like it now. It fits me perfectly."
Yes, Slick has lived up to that colorful moniker by gliding across the gridiron like a gazelle in full stride and leaping like a leopard up a tree.
"Slick just has so much God-given ability," said Southside head coach Barry Lunney. "He's just got things that you can't coach."
Shelley, reportedly, has become the most highly recruited prospect in Southside High School's rich football history. He has offers from Michigan, Tennessee and LSU among countless others. Arkansas will be a strong contender but don't dismiss the Vols and coach Steve Caldwell who has orchestrated UT's prior success in Arkansas. Caldwell isn't a high-profile recruiter but he's great at relationship building and slow and steady has underscored his effective approach.
After all, you've got to be more than quick to catch Slick.