A Tale Of Two Quarterbacks

Nowadays, it's seems that Tennessee quarterback prospects fit into one of two categories. And no, they're not called Slim and None.

Rather, there are those who are offered that haven't accepted, and there are those who would accept that haven't been offered. One prospect from each category was on UT's campus this weekend with JaMarcus Russell fitting into the former description and Bo Hardegree falling into the later.

Russell, of Mobile Williamson High School is rated the nation's No. 3 quarterback prospect by The Insiders while Hardegree, of Jackson Central-Merry High School, checks in at No. 90.

In some respects, it's surprising that either player was on campus. Russell had unofficially closed the door on Tennessee a couple of weeks ago and canceled his planned visit to Knoxville, indicating he would choose between Florida State and LSU. His visit was unexpected and unheralded, and it would be even more surprising if he ends up at Tennessee.

But if Russell is merely using misdirection and decides to reside in K-town, it would set off fireworks in Big Orange Country and could start a landslide of other commitments. Such is the scope of Russell's talent and such is the magnitude of Tennessee football.

On the other hand, Hardegree has been on the outer edge of Tennessee's radar screen for many months. As starting quarterback of the team with the state's top prospect, linebacker Daniel Brooks, it was hard not to notice Hardegree, too. However Hardegree doesn't have the pigskin pedigree Tennessee normally seeks when you consider the list of All-Americans that have run the Vols high-octane attack over the last decade. So not many fans figured the Vols would be taking that close a look at a quarterback that's not highly rated this late in the recruiting campaign.

However, normal isn't a word used to describe the state of Tennessee football in recent months. Extenuating circumstances have put UT in an unusual position with a pair of seniors as the only scholarship QBs on the roster and no quarterback committed in the Class of 2003 to this point.

On the surface, J.R. looks like the second coming to a Tennessee football program starved for good news, while Hardegree appears to be a fringe prospect with limited potential.

But before we discount Hardegree's football future, let's consider what he has to offer along with some pretty compelling circumstances that have contributed to his current status.

Physically, Hardegree (6-5, 190, 4.79) stands up well when compared to Russell (6-5, 212, 4.75). He also has a strong arm and is confident making all the throws.

"I've got a strong arm and good feet," Hardegree said. "I can throw the ball 70 yards in the air and there aren't any throws I don't feel comfortable making. I've got good presence. I study film real well. I like doing stuff like that and that helps me. In college you've got to live in the film room."

Hardegree's understanding of the game has been augmented by the experience of growing up the son of a football coach. His father, Jim, is the the head coach at Jackson Central-Merry and a 23-year veteran of the profession. Bo has had maximum exposure to the game of football his entire life and has an engrained appreciation of what it takes succeed at it.

Over the last two seasons, he has led the Cougars to a 21-4 record including a 12-1 mark in 2002. As a junior, Hardegree passed for 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last season, he improved to 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also ran for three scores.

Hardegree carries a perfect 4.0 grade point average and has scholarship offers from several Ivy League schools. Outside of summer camps he attended at Tennessee and Ole Miss, Hardegree missed the exposure of the Nike Camps because of his other athletic passion — tennis.

Hardegree is actually higher rated as a tennis prospect than he is as a quarterback. He is listed as the United State Tennis Association's No. 7 player under 18 in the southeast and is among the top 50 players in his age division nationally.

"Tennis helps me a lot with my footwork,' he said. "I could play tennis in college, but I'd rather play football. I might go to Memphis on scholarship if things don't work out in football."

Hardegree's quick feet and agile movements help him buy time in the pocket and his superior hand-eye coordination has been well honed through years of returning 100-mph serves. He also has a powerful right arm and the deft touch needed to make precise throws on short routes.

Another factor in his favor is lifelong affinity for Tennessee football. "I've been a Tennessee fan growing up," he said. "I've always liked Tennessee. I've been going to games there over the years."

Hardegree enjoyed his visit to UT which included a Saturday night dinner in the east skybox of Neyland Stadium and a Sunday breakfast with Coach Phillip Fulmer. He was hosted by Tennessee sophomore punter Dustin Colquitt and had a couple of in-depth conversations with offensive coordinator Randy Sanders about Tennessee's offense and scholarship situation.

"I really liked it," Hardegree said. "I'm just kind of still waiting on what they're going to do. They said they were only going to offer one quarterback this year. They've got a couple of guys coming in next weekend, so I'm just going to see how that goes.

"He (Fulmer) told me scholarship-wise I was in the mix. If I had the opportunity to commit, I'd commit to Tennessee because the opportunity is there. It's there. They're moving Banks to wide receiver and it's Leak's last year. You need to come in one year and learn the offense and if you show the coaches something, you've got a chance."

Getting that chance appears a greater possibility now than it did a couple of months ago. To begin with Tennessee's need at quarterback has become more pronounced since the breakdown of its relationship with Chris Leak and the failure to attract another top prospect. Additionally, Hardegree has become more in demand with Alabama entering the picture in recent days.

"Coach (Mike) Price came to school to talk to Daniel (Brooks)," said Hardegree. "Daniel took his official visit to Alabama this weekend. They saw my film and they were impressed. Their coaching staff is in a big rush. They're going to contact me in a week or so. I might have an offer from Alabama."

Hardegree and Brooks have the same three finalists in Tennessee, Alabama and Ole Miss. Brooks is deciding which school to attend while Hardegree is waiting to see which school(s) will offer. Fulmer is scheduled to be in Jackson on Tuesday for in-home visits with both prospects.

Hardegree isn't discouraged that an offer hasn't been extended by any of the three SEC schools yet and seems confident he will succeed given the opportunity.

"Quite a few people have told me I could be like a Chad Pennington," he said pointing to another Tennessee product who overcame low projections to become a star. "A lot of people say I'm similar to Chris Sims except I'm right-handed."

Hardegree said if he signs a football scholarship, he will likely give up tennis because of the mental demands of playing quarterback at the D-I level.

"Mentally, I'd have to be there for spring practice," he said. "They would really like to redshirt me if I come there. He said it could be one quarterback or it could be two. It just depends on who they get."

Presumably, Tennessee will sign two QBs if Russell is one of them. Otherwise, the Vols will sign the best available prospect and try to get him ready for the 2004 season.

In either case, Hardegree is a quarterback the Vols may not be able to pass up.

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