Something Special This Way Comes

About this time last season when the hunt for Tennessee's next quarterback appeared to be going next to nowhere for the third straight year, I placed a call to Deerfield Beach High School in south Florida to inquire about a prospect who was beginning to attract attention and create buzz.

At that time Brent Schaeffer had only started 12 games in his high school career and was regarded as no better than the No. 4 or No. 5 best signal caller in the Sunshine State. One of the first things you learn when covering recruiting is that high school coaches can be effusive in extolling the virtues of their own players. In a sense many coaches become advocates more than evaluators. So you tend to take some praise with a grain of salt.

That was my intention during this inquiry, but there was something in coach Joe Redmond's voice that convinced me to suspend my usual skepticism. There was also a lot in his background as a highly respected college and high school coach that demanded I weigh his words with an open mind.

Admittedly, Redmond grabbed my interest when he said Schaeffer would start on Sundays, but I never believed the quicksilver QB would start this Sunday in his first game as a collegian. Yet that now appears to be the case, as Schaeffer stands on the threshold of history as the first true freshman to ever start the season at quarterback for an SEC team.

Recalling that conversation I went back through the interview to gather some of the other things Redmond told me about Schaeffer and some of the things that Schaeffer had to say about himself in subsequent conversations. Together they form a fascinating football prophecy that I thought Tennessee fans would like to share.

"He's the best player I've ever coached," Redmond told me that first day. "I say that quick because it's true. The others don't come close to him.

"You have impact players and then you have instant impact players. Brent is going to be an instant impact player in college."

By the time Schaeffer had completed his senior season he owned every significant Deerfield Beach passing record as he led the Bucks to a 12-2 record and the Class 6A state semifinals. When I interviewed Schaeffer two games into his senior year he summed up his personal goals as follows.

"I want to leave a legacy, my name," Schaeffer said. "When people mention Deerfield 10 years from now, they'll say, `Oh, Brent Schaeffer went there.'"

Now it doesn't appear Schaeffer will have to wait nearly that long to have that lofty legacy.

If you think that's surprising you might be shocked to know Schaeffer is afraid of football crowds, an important fact to someone who'll be greeted by 108,000 fans at Neyland Stadium. Despite being an excellent student from a family of educators, he is terrified at the thought of giving a book report in the front of a class. Yet he can take control of a huddle with a quiet confidence amid big-game pressure. Obviously, he's discovered a way to overcome his fear.

"I'm scared of the fans," he admitted. "I've got major stage fright. So I tune out everyone. I never look up in the stands.

"Even in the big games, in crucial situations, I never get butterflies or nothing."

Schaeffer isn't superstitious by nature but he does use a device to reinforce his resilience. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound quarterback always wears a rubber band on one of his wrists. It's a practice that dates back to his youth football days and was adopted after one Schaeffer's coaches once pointed out, the rubber band stretches and it always pops back. Bouncing back is how Schaeffer deals with adversity. So he never removes the rubber band, even in the shower. If it breaks, he replaces it.

It's not a stretch to say Schaeffer is a superb athlete even by next-level standards. The still maturing QB — he turned 18 a week before signing with the Vols —bench presses in excess of 300 pounds, has a 32-inch vertical leap, outstanding speed that is augmented by stunning quickness.

How fast is he? Schaeffer is generally listed in the 4.45 range but Redmond insists his former star "can roll out of bed and run a 4.4 flat." To better appreciate Schaeffer's straight-line speed consider that Tee Martin ran a 4.71 in the school's Pro Day combine in 2000. Impressive as Schaeffer's 40-yard clockings don't do justice to his escapability. Opposing coaches were apt to describe his knack for stopping, spinning, darting and changing directions as being ghostly. Schaeffer is a will-o'-the-wisp on the field and a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare.

"Every game he does something that is amazing," said Redmond. "Just to show you his versatility: when the other team (Vero Beach) scored Friday night we knew they would on-side kick so we put in our hands team, and he's the safety on our hands team. They kicked the ball to him and he went 70 yards for a touchdown. That's the kind of stuff he does."

An example of how Schaeffer uses his speed to set up the pass occurred last season when he was caught between two blitzing linebackers while standing tall in the pocket. Schaeffer managed to spin out of the grasp of one linebacker and side stepped the second. Unfortunately, his great escape put him on the opposite side of the field from where his receivers were with a pack of defenders were in hot pursuit. Schaeffer spurted out of reach, reversed his field came all the back to the other side where he uncorked a 50-yard touchdown pass to an opener receiver.

Schaeffer thrives on competition and demonstrated that knack when I informed him last year that Tennessee had received a commitment from Erik Ainge.

"Who's that?" he asked. "Oh, is that the quarterback from Oregon? It doesn't matter to me who they sign. I'm not making a decision based on the competition. I'm not afraid of competition."

On signing day he took a couple of questions despite being confined to bed with a case of the flu. He politely gave me a couple of quotes and when asked if he had a message for Tennessee fans, he said: "I want to let them know they won't be sorry I signed with Tennessee. I'm coming there to work my hardest and try to lead Tennessee to a national championship."

Two days before Schaeffer signed with Tennessee when his decision was still very much up in the air, I talked to Coach Redmond to get some insight as to what the future might hold for the standout signal caller? His answer was again prophetic.

"I expect him to be starting somewhere next August for some football team. Unless they're nine deep at quarterback, and if he gets a fair shot which I believe he will, you're going to see him play. I think he really fits in Tennessee's system. It would make a good marriage."

Let the love fest begin.


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