The city notorious for Beale Street, barbecue and Elvis is a stop that high school recruiters know well. Memphis is a breeding ground for mammoth offensive and defensive linemen, as well as quick-as-a-blink running back / defensive back / all-purpose athlete types. The fount never seems to run dry.
Why hasn't Vanderbilt had more success in the Bluff City? Some would say it's because many of the top athletes are the product of inner-city schools with questionable academic backgrounds-- the type that poses an academic risk, and the type that doesn't always feel at home at a private school like Vanderbilt (witness the Billy Richmond saga in basketball).
Memphis, others might point out, is a crossroads / border city-- and though the players are plentiful, the competition for them is intense. Tennessee has long made a good living in Memphis. Arkansas and the Mississippi schools have their hands in the pie. The University of Memphis (Conference USA) is there as a Division 1-A alternative for Memphis athletes who want to play college football but don't wish to leave home.
Furthermore, one could point to the scandals and shady dealings that have surrounded the Memphis high school football scene. Both Alabama and Kentucky are on probation today due to recruiting violations involving Memphis players. (Thankfully, over the years Vanderbilt coaches have managed to avoid players with their hands out.)
But things are changing on the Memphis City Schools scene, which for many years operated as an entity unto itself. Perhaps nowhere is this demonstrated any better than at traditional powerhouse Melrose.
Melrose High School dominated Class 3A in the late 1990's and won state titles in 3A in 1996 and 1998. Under legendary coach Tim Thompson the school produced blue-chippers like Tennessee's Cedric Wilson and Andre Lott, Kentucky's DeWayne Robertson, and Alabama's Kindal Moorehead and David Paine.
After being accused of accepting $1,400 in money orders from a University of Kentucky assistant and paying for 16 Melrose players to attend a UK football camp, Thompson was suspended by Memphis City Schools. The Golden Wildcats were also placed on probation. Melrose hired Whitehaven graduate Kenny Ingram to clean up the mess.
Fresh off of probation in 2002, Ingram quickly returned Melrose to its traditional form. The Golden Wildcats went 12-1 and made it to the state semifinals, despite playing only two home games all year. The strength of the team was largely in its junior class. The 2003 Melrose team is "absolutely loaded with talent," according to a recent story in the Commercial-Appeal, "with a senior class oozing Division 1-caliber talent."
Meanwhile Vanderbilt, under the direction of Bobby Johnson, has gotten heart-attack serious about combing the home state for its top talent. While coaches Rod Dowhower and Woody Widenhofer scoured the Midstate area for talent throughout the 1990's and had some successes, the extremes of West Tennessee and East Tennessee were largely ignored. (The lone exception: Rushen Jones of Memphis-Whitehaven, who inked a scholarship in 1999.)
Upon taking the job in late 2001, Johnson set up his staff so that each assistant was assigned a specific area of the state to recruit. The staff committed itself to making a run at in-state players that in the past might have been conceded to other schools. No longer, for example, would the Commodores abandon East Tennessee to the Big Orange. (Johnson's first commitment for 2004, Jeff Jennings, is from Dandridge, a hamlet in the heart of Big Orange Country.)
And the Johnson staff's efforts in West Tennessee paid off earlier this year when linebacker / athlete Curtis Gatewood, a 6-4, 210-pounder from Memphis-White Station, became part of Johnson's 2003 recruiting class. Gatewood, a multi-sport star for White Station, also played basketball; many observers thought he was a better player than his teammate, Tennessee basketball signee Dane Bradshaw. (You'll see him next week in the Tennessee-Kentucky All-Star football game in Lexington.)
Last season Bobby Johnson, perhaps laying the groundwork for what he knew would be a talented junior class at Melrose, invited Ingram and practically the entire Melrose team onto campus for the Vanderbilt home game vs. MTSU. They all came, and for a day Vanderbilt Stadium looked like Melrose West.
Notable among the campus visitors that day were:
- Antonio Heffner, a dual-threat quarterback (6-2, 175, 4.5) whom ESPN.com's Tom Lemming calls the best quarterback in the city. Heffner passed for over 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2002.
- Joseph Doss, a prototype Memphis tailback (5-10, 180) who's been timed at 4.36 in the 40.
- Wide receivers Carlos Armour (6-3, 200, 4.5) and Corey Kizer (6-3, 190, 4.4).
Melrose may have as many as nine Division 1 prospects, say the experts, and a good number of them were on hand that day to give Vanderbilt the once-over.
According to Lemming, the best prospect in Memphis is not from one of the inner-city schools, but from Division II Christian Brothers High School. Offensive lineman Corey Mills is 6-5, 260, and is starting to draw offers from all the big names, including Vanderbilt. At the recent TSSAA Spring Fling in Memphis, Mills absolutely dominated the state in both the shot-put (60'8") and the discus (165'1"). This mild-mannered young man is a brute, and would be a perfect fit for the Commodore program if he's so inclined.
Bobby Johnson's staff is starting to establish a rapport with some Memphis coaches, and attempting to pry open some doors that have been slammed shut in the past. Don't be surprised if that groundwork doesn't begin to pay off soon.