Keeper of the Sleepers Looks Back

Each year I endeavor to pick out a few members from UT's football signing class that might prove successful beyond their rankings on nation prospect lists. I'm in the process of compiling that list for the 2005 class which appears to have some super sleepers.

But before I publish my annual pigskin snoozer picks I thought it would be good to look back on my list from the stellar class of 2002 which enters its senior year in 2005 with the exception of redshirts. By the way that class had eight Parade All-Americans including: Rob Smith, James Wilhoit, Heath Benedict, Jonathan Mapu, James Banks, Brandon Jeffries, Gerald Riggs. Jr. and Daniel Brooks. Only four of those eight will be at UT this fall while two of the sleepers project as starters and a third is slated for a key backup role. It just goes to show whether it's all-Americans or all-conference prospects there are no guarantees.

This story was written in March 2002 and consists of four players. As is the nature predictions of this sort some don't work out and others do. It's good to keep that in mind when reading the upcoming 2005 list. I elected to run the story in it's entirety because it helps provide some perspective.

2002 UT SLEEPERS

Finding a sleeper in Tennessee's superb Class of 2002 is a little like looking for a vehicle that gets good gas mileage at a Ferrari dealership. You're not likely to find one but when surrounded by that type of sleek, stylish power on wheels, you aren't likely to care.

Yes, Tennessee's consistent recruiting success has translated to a high-profile image and has taken some of the fun away from landing smalltime prospects who become prime-time players. And yet all things are relative, and so it is that we can still find gems on UT's roster that were rated below some of their more celebrated classmates when signed.

When you look at some of the current such qualifiers a couple of things become clear: most develop on defense after a change of positions and most come from the great state of Tennessee. In 1999, Eddie Moore of South Pittsburg, Tenn., was a small classification high school running back/safety when a late offer came from Tennessee and lured him away from Ole Miss. A two-year starter entering his senior season, Moore is now one of the top linebackers in the SEC.

Jabari Greer was a midlevel wide receiver coming out of Jackson Southside, but became a starter as a true freshman at cornerback and will contend for all conference honors entering his junior campaign.

Edward Kendrick was a quality tight end prospect out of Macon, Ga., who signed with UT in 1998 and stayed stuck on the depth chart behind Jon Finlayson and Neil Johnson for two seasons. In the spring of 2000, he was moved to defensive tackle, a position he never played in high school, and became a starter. He looks to return to that role this season after sitting out last year with an injury.

While most of the offense is loaded with blue chip pedigree starters, Scott Wells of Brentwood Academy is an exception. Many questioned UT's decision to sign Wells in 1999. He was accomplished as defensive tackle, but there were doubts among recruiting authorities about if he had the size and potential to become a top flight offensive lineman. Wells took over the starting center's job as a redshirt freshman, after Fred Weary went down in the 2000 Florida game, and has become the anchor of a formidable offensive front.

Finding the sleepers from the Class of 2002 is more of a challenge, but there are some solid candidates, especially if we follow the formula of UT's recent recruiting success — in-state players destined for defense.

• JASON HALL: At 6-4, 245, with 4.7 speed, Hall, of Chattanooga McCallie, has the physical qualifications to play both defensive end or tight end at the next level. Tennessee's need at tight end could push him into a reserve role as a true freshman, but we think he could eventually become an outstanding collegiate pass rusher after adding some weight and strength. Hall is a late bloomer who gained focus after realizing he had the potential to play Division I football entering his senior season. Hall led the Blue Tornado to a 12-0 season and Division II state title last fall while earning league MVP honors. Tennessee became convinced of Hall's ability after watching him wreak havoc on Chattanooga Notre Dame's vaunted passing attack last fall (seven solo tackles, a pair of sacks and a ton of hurries) and committed him soon after. Hall, who is also a solid basketball player and an excellent athlete, is intelligent and goal oriented. He has a very good chance to flourish at Tennessee.

• LeRON HARRIS, 6-3, 305, of Memphis Kingsbury, was offered by Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas in the SEC, so it's not actually like he's unknown. However Tennessee signed four Parade All-American linemen in the Class of 2002, plus such notable additions as Greg Jones and David Ligon, so he might be easy for Big Orange fans to overlook. That would be a mistake because Harris has the ideal size and quickness to become a standout defensive tackle. Last season, despite being double-teamed most of the time, Harris recorded 65 tackles and 11 sacks while playing three different defensive positions, including middle linebacker. Harris runs a respectable 4.9 time in the 40 and can bench press over 400 pounds. He's also athletic enough to perform back flips at 305 pounds and to dunk a basketball on a standard goal from a standing start. Served as team captain for two seasons and carries a 3.3 grade point average. Harris, who wasn't recruited hard until his senior season, has the tools to factor into the defensive tackle rotation as a true freshman and the long-range potential to become a star in the SEC, if his fire matches his talent.

• JUSTIN HARRELL, 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, of Martin Westview, was originally committed as a tight end last fall when he was one inch shorter and 25 pounds lighter. Ironically, Harrell's growth spurt came while he was earning all-state honors in basketball, a sport he was also offered several D-I scholarships to play. Harrell was the most productive tight end Tennessee recruited last season. He caught 39 passes in two seasons for 625 yards and nine touchdowns. As a senior on defense, he recorded 72 tackles including, 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage with four sacks, eight blocked passes, a blocked extra point, three caused fumbles and two recoveries. Although Harrell has grown into a defensive tackle, he could end up on the offensive line where he will follow in the footsteps of two former Martin High School greats — Chad Clifton and Will Offenhusle. However his mobility and quickness off the ball appear to be of greater value on defense. It may take a couple of seasons to get there, but Harrell could easily end up as a three-year starter at defensive tackle for Tennessee and may push for serious playing time as a redshirt freshman.

• MARVIN MITHCELL, 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, with 4.6 speed, was rated the No. 36 prospect in Virginia which makes him the most sleepy suspect on this list. That rating was taken before Mitchell's standout senior season in which he was moved from defensive end to middle linebacker and compiled 131 tackles, including 18 in one game against Booker T. Washington. Mitchell, who won't turn 18 until Oct. 24, appears to still be growing and is expected to reach 6-4 where he could become a defensive end or tight end with added weight. Mitchell played both tight end and wide receiver at Norfolk High School where he caught an 64 passes for 997 yards and 21 touchdowns during his junior and senior seasons combined. Starting three seasons for teams that never reached the playoffs, Mitchell has more ability than publicity. UT's coaching staff was obviously impressed with Mitchell's potential and given their track record it's hard to argue with that assessment.

If sleepers were easy to find they wouldn't be sleepers, but this foursome seems destined to exceed expectations and could well become future college football stars.


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