Others' Loss Is Vols' Gaines

Antonio Gaines didn't exactly take a well-worn path to a football scholarship at Tennessee, neither did he blaze a trail. In fact, he followed in very familiar footsteps.

It was just two seasons ago that the Vols went to Covington, Tenn., and plucked a virtual unknown in linebacker John Poe, who missed his entire senior season after tearing an ACL in an August scrimmage.

Other schools that were evaluating Poe turned elsewhere and he got lost in the recruiting shuffle until Tennessee committed him late in the process. Afterwards it was revealed: The Vols were always sold on Poe and were planning on signing him in spite of the knee injury.

Poe was forced to go the junior college route and, after a 2001 redshirt season at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, he returned completely recovered last season and is now enrolled at UT where he has three years of eligibility.

Like Poe, Gaines was a senior at Covington who went down with a torn ACL in the second game and missed the rest of the season. Gaines was another largely unknown prospect that schools lost interest in after his injury but Tennessee believed in and, on Sunday, committed. Now Gaines is reportedly fully recovered from his knee injury and set to join the Vols this summer.

The fact Poe and Gaines will now be teammates is also a testament to their character and resiliency. These are two prospects who get high marks from former coaches in the areas of work ethic, attitude and effort. Add the in-state component and these atypical prospects take on a Cinderella quality that could, eventually, transform them into fan favorites.

"When Jonathan (Poe) got hurt he was upset about his knee injury and Antonio was real upset," said Covington assistant coach Geno Miller. "It was just one of those things he dealt with and rehabbed like he was supposed to. It's unusual for a young man to have his senior year end like that and for Antonio to show the character he did to get his mind right and focus his attention on getting ready, and he is 100 percent healthy, that's special."

There seems little doubt that Gaines would have also proved to be a special prospect in 2002, if given the opportunity. He put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a sophomore and junior in addition to returning punts and kicks, and taking on the toughest assignments at cornerback. Covington went 12-1 and 12-2 during those years reaching the Class-3A semifinals and finals.

But it was during a football camp at Tennessee in the spring of 2002 that the 5-9, 180-pound Gaines really caught the eyes of UT's with a 4.38 clocking in the 40 and laudable lateral quickness in the 20-yard shuttle.

"He just has such explosive speed if he's given any kind of daylight he's dangerous, especially at the high school level," said Miller. "You know a lot of runners are fast straight away, but side to side they may just be average. Antonio has great side-to-side speed and he's fast straight away, too."

Patterson said most schools were recruiting Gaines as an athlete, but believes he could excel as a cornerback and a special team's performer.

"With him being our main threat on offense, he was used mostly in situations on defense where the team was going to throw a lot to one receiver and we'd put Antonio on him," Miller said. "He'd shut them down.

"Us being a triple-A team, we'd play some kids both ways but we'd try to spell Antonio on defense. The exception is when a team had an outstanding receiver and we'd put Antonio on him. A lot of teams didn't throw much, but when they had somebody to throw to we'd put Antonio there and he'd do a great job. He was physical and he'd stay with bigger receivers."

Antonio could also stay with the big boys in the weight room where he cleans 275 pounds and benches around 300. It's his combination of speed, strength and quickness that makes him a natural for Tennessee's defense.

"Pound for pound he's one of the strongest players on our team," said Patterson. "There are a lot of kids that are fast, but in all the years I've coached football I haven't seen one with the foot speed he's got."

Gaines runs sprints for the Chargers track team and is well respected by his teammates and coaches.

"He was voted team captain," said Miller. "Antonio has a great attitude. He's a good kid, a yes-sir, no-sir guy. He's never missed a practice, never missed anything. He's a kid who stayed after practice to run. He's just the way a coach would want a player to carry himself.

"I don't ever remember a bad report coming back on Antonio from anyone."

Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Wyoming and Memphis were among the schools to maintain an interest in Gaines after his injury.

"I know some schools got off him because of the injury," Miller said. "I don't understand why because now kids come back from ACL injuries and they're just as good as ever. His character is up there and that's one of the best things he's got going for him. I'm glad to see a school of Tennessee's caliber offer him because I think it will pay off for them too."

Kids of high-character are always in demand, especially when they can bench 300 pounds, run a 4.38 and play more than one position.

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