Smalls was a SuperPrep All-American and his region's defensive player of the year after recording 82 tackles and 13 sacks as a senior. He was a three-year, two-way starter who was considered one of the better two-way line prospects in the south. However he hasn't panned out at Tennessee in four seasons after moving from defense to offense and back to defense where he saw mostly mop-up duty last year as a redshirt junior.
In 1999, Bernard Jackson was a Parade All-American at linebacker who recorded 239 tackles in two seasons at St. Xavier High School in Louisville and looked like the best defensive prospect in the Vols recruiting class. Jackson was an early standout at Tennessee practices, but he resisted a move to defensive end and failed to make it as a 6-4, 250-pound middle linebacker. In his first three seasons, he had a total of 25 tackles and two sacks. He finally earned the starting job as a senior, but never fulfilled his early promise.
In 1998, Willie Miles came to Tennessee as a consensus All-American and the No. 2 cover corner in the nation. That same year Teddy Gaines was an all-state player who wasn't rated in the top 50 cornerbacks nationally. But Gaines beat Miles out for the starting cornerback as a junior and would have again as a senior if Miles hadn't been redshirted with a wrist injury.
Similarly, Robert Boulware was a USA Today All-American rated the nation's No. 3 corner and a top 50 recruit nationally in 2001 when he signed with Tennessee. The Charlotte, N.C., native was redshirted as a freshman and hasn't earned significant playing time in two seasons on The Hill. Conversely, Jabari Greer of Jackson Southside wasn't even a top 50 receiver in high school, but he started as a true freshman at corner for Tennessee and has become a mainstay in the Vols secondary the last three years.
Scott Wells and Eddie Moore were considered lesser lights in Tennessee's Class of 1999, but both became solid starters — Wells as a redshirt freshman and Moore as a true junior. Ironically, Wells, a center, was regarded as a better defensive prospect in high school while Moore, a linebacker, played running back and safety at South Pittsburg.
Rashad Baker was an all-state receiver at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., who never played defensive back until he got to Tennessee where he became a starter at free safety as a true freshman. Joey Kent was a sleeper receiver from Huntsville that both Auburn and Alabama passed on, who became Tennessee's all-time leading pass catcher.
J.J. McClesky was an undersized walk-on defensive back who became a starter at Tennessee and went on to have a seven-year career in the NFL. Brian Darden was an all-American running back and the top prospect in Mississippi who never experienced football success at Tennessee or beyond.
These comparisons aren't intended as a slap against the players who failed to reach the heights projected for their careers or the people who failed miserably while projecting such success. It simply indicates how problematical it is making such projections, and accounting for all the obstacles that come into play at the next level.
It's almost impossible to know how much a player will mature in four years, how they'll adjust to the diverse demands of the college game, what role injuries will play in one's development or what type of competition they'll encounter.
If there are patterns at play among the sleepers that make it at Tennessee they are: (1) a high percentage tend to be in-state prospects and (2) it's harder to evaluate DBs than any other position in high school because they don't face the level of passers and receivers they encounter in college.
It makes sense that an in-state player might succeed because in many cases it's a dream they grow up with and they're willing to sacrifice more to make it a reality. There's more ongoing incentive because they have more family and friends aware of their progress.
With these qualifiers out of the way, we project the top five sleepers in Tennessee's Class of 2003.
(1) Antonio Gaines: Here's a player that meets the two most critical criteria for making it as a sleeper at Tennessee. He's an in-state defensive back who missed most of his senior year with a knee injury, but by all accounts has outstanding quickness to go with excellent speed. Also a good running back and playmaker who is mentally tough and has a good chance to make the transition in the college game.
(2) Bo Hardegree: Another in-state prospect who has the added background of being from Jackson, Tenn., a city that has sent a long list of overachievers to UT. Hardegree has height, intelligence, athletic ability and a ton of intangibles. Being the only QB signed in this class means that Hardegree will get a lot of individual attention and should respond well to the challenge.
(3) Brad Cottam: The third in-state prospect on this list with probably more upside than anyone else given his rare combination of size and speed. Think of Ron Slay running a post route over the middle and you get an idea of what Cottam might look like at the identical size of 6-8, 240. Here's a player that didn't get a chance to prove himself as a pass catcher in high school who has 4.78 speed and is physically tough. It won't happen overnight, but Cottam will be pushed hard to help fill the void at tight end and, if he responds, he'll surprise a lot of the experts.
(4) Brandon Johnson: This JC transfer with three years of eligibility offers a lot of value given his physical skills and early development at DB. Played quarterback in high school at Tulsa where he moved from Boston as a junior. Made remarkable progress in first season playing cornerback at NEO and brings a lot to the table at 6-2, 198, and 4.45 speed.
(5) Bill Grimes: This was a player few had heard of outside of Douglasville, Ga., where he played for newly established Chapel Hill High School which struggled to three wins in it first three seasons. Grimes has good size and speed plus the 6-4, frame to develop into an H-back. Reportedly an outstanding athlete with good work habits.