Will Texas JC Duo Fortify UT's Front Four?

Winning the battle of the trenches in the Southeastern Conference, often depends on beating the Junior College bushes to identify and acquire talent that is JC tested and SEC ready.

It's rare to find high school players with sufficient strength and maturity to compete nose to nose in the intensity filled neutral zone, which means teams increasingly turn to junior colleges to fill in gaps created by graduation.

Tennessee lost two such solid former Junior College players in Aubrayo Franklin and Dementrin Veal from last year's team and return another in Mondre Dickerson. But the rest of Tennessee's defensive tackle pool comes from redshirt freshmen (Justin Harrell, David Ligon, LaRon Harris) and a true sophomore Greg Jones. The Vols haven't committed a junior college defensive linemen to this point, but they do have two visiting campus on the last weekend for official visits before national signing day.

In fact, defensive tackle Zarnell Fitch (6-3, 295) and defensive end Michael Montgomery (6-6, 275) are roommates, as well as, teammates at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas. If the Vols could land both, they would fortify the defensive front for the 2003 campaign. If they fail to sign either, we're likely to hear more and more talk about the 3-4 defensive scheme in the fall.

With many other teams dealing with the same needs, the competition for Fitch and Montgomery is strong and Navarro Head Coach Chuck Lawrence indicates it's justified. And according to a preseason publication put out by Student Sports and Sporting News Fitch was rated the nation's No. 15 junior college prospect while Montgomery checked in at a highly respectable No. 49.

"Zarnell was honorable mention all-conference," said Lawrence. "He's a very strong, good pass rush up the middle. He did an excellent job stopping the run for us this year.

"Michael is very athletic. He actually played on our basketball team as a freshman as well as football. He was a first-team All-American with JC Gridwire and an honorable mention All-American with NJCAA."

Fitch is originally from Star Spencer High School in Oklahoma City and Montgomery hails from Center High School in Center, Texas.

On the year, Fitch played strong-side tackle and recorded 37 solo stops with 11 assists with a quarterback sack. Montgomery had 75 total tackles (58 solo).

"Michael had three tackles for losses and one quarterback sack," Lawrence explained, "but he was a known commodity coming back as a freshman and he got a lot of double teams with tackles and fullbacks.

"Michael is probably a 4.8 and Zarnell is probably 4.9. They've got good mobility for their size."

They've also got good upper body strength with Fitch benching 400 and Montgomery benching 350 at 6-foot-6.

"Obviously these guys are taking a lot of visits," said Lawrence. "Michael has visited Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee this week. Zarnell has visited Arkansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and then Tennessee. He's committed to Arkansas to this point."

Fitch made his commitment to Arkansas after taking all of his visits, but decided to revisit the recruiting process when the Vols came calling.

"Zarnell made the verbal after taking these other visits," said Lawrence. "Then the Tennessee deal came in and he kind of jumped at the chance."

Navarro finished a disappointing 3-7 in 2002, but did qualify for the playoffs in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference, and Lawrence said Fitch and Montgomery were rock steady the entire season.

"They have excellent work habits, good kids, yes sir, no sir, go to class," Lawrence said while listing the duo's attributes. "Obviously they're going to be able to graduate and that's why they're being so heavily recruited."

Lawrence said the Fitch and Montgomery have become good friends while at Navarro but that doesn't mean they'll be attending the same school.

"They're roommates and really hit it off here as teammates," he said. "I really don't think that's going to play into their decision. I think they're both going to make their decision on what school fits them the best. But they are good friends and roommates."

Both players have pared down their list and Tennessee will have an opportunity to sweep the pair off their collective feet.

"Everybody is up in the air right now," said Lawrence. "They've both eliminated Oklahoma State. It's my understanding that Mike has eliminated LSU. I think it's going to come down to Arkansas, A&M and Tennessee on him. And I think for Zarnell, it's going to come down to Arkansas and Tennessee."

After Lawrence cleared up the rumor of Fitch and Montgomery being a package deal, he dispelled another rumor of that states there is really only one fruit cake that has been re-gifted over generations. In truth, it seems that most of the world's fruitcake supply comes just a couple of kickoffs from Navarro.

"If you've gotten a fruit cake for Christmas it probably came from College Street Bakery here in Corsicana, Texas," Lawrence said. "It's the Fruit Cake Capitol of the World. It's right down the street from the college."

If the Vols could get a pair of ready-to-play D-linemen from one school, it would be like having their cake and eating it, too.

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