By Alex Norman
Most college football coaches love to talk about the importance of recruiting their home state, the whole “put up a wall around the borders” thing…
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has made recruiting the Volunteer state a priority since he arrived in Knoxville in December of 2012. Getting players like Nashville’s Derek Barnett, Hendersonville’s Jalen Hurd, Gallatin’s Josh Malone and Knoxville’s Todd Kelly Jr. were huge gets from a program that needed players of that caliber desperately.
But it’s getting tougher to keep the 4 and 5 star guys from looking elsewhere.
Tee Higgins, the top prospect in the Class of 2017 in Tennessee, is a 5-star recruit from nearby Oak Ridge High School. He was at one time a Vols commit, but he de-committed and back in July told Clemson had he would be a Tiger.
“The family feel they gave me just made you feel like family,” said Higgins. “I really liked that so that is why I chose Clemson.”
And while the perception might be that Higgins would be stressed out about the decision to leave East Tennessee for a small town in South Carolina, it doesn’t sound like Higgins was too worried about making this call regarding his future.
“A lot of Vol fans wanted me to commit to Tennessee but I felt no pressure,” said Higgins. “Because it is my decision. It is just me and my Mom so…”
Higgins, who also considered Ole Miss, Ohio State and Florida State, won the Mr. Football Award in Class 5A for Backs last season. He caught 52 passes for 941 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2015.
He is currently listed as the 4th best wide receiver and the 20th best overall player in the nation.
“As a wide receiver he has all the tools. He really doesn’t have a weakness,” said Oak Ridge head coach Joe Gaddis. “He can run fast, he can jump, he has great hands… he’s a good blocker, he’s a great route runner… honestly he can score anytime he touches the ball. He doesn’t have a downside. That’s what makes him special. I think he can be a special one at the next level and the level after that. He’s that good and we are fortunate to have him right here with us right now.”
Players like Barnett and Hurd were wooed to Tennessee in part with the understanding that early playing time was a strong possibility, and they each saw significant action as true freshmen. But now that Jones has built depth on the roster, it isn’t as easy to use that as a recruiting tool. The price of recruiting success is that one of those advantages you had is now gone.
Tee Higgins knew that getting on the field at the next level will take effort at any of the top programs he was looking at, and he sounds ready for the challenge.
“Every freshman is going to have to go in and have to work,” said Higgins. “You don’t have a position automatically. I have a good work ethic so it isn’t like I’m going in and have a starting position so I’m gonna have to work for it.”
One other note concerning Higgins. He’s not only a standout at football, but he is one of the top high school basketball players in the state as well. However, once he gets to college, all of his athletic pursuits will be centered on football. And that should do nothing but help him going forward.
“It’s gonna improve my game a lot because with me playing basketball I didn’t have much time to get in the weight room and get big, so that’s gonna improve a lot,” said Higgins.
“The only weakness he has as a high school football player is that he is in football, then basketball, and then spring football. He misses the weight room,” said Gaddis. “The one month he is in the weight room he works hard, but he will transform from a young man to a really well developed man here in a couple of years. He will get in weight room training table and he will go from 190 pounds to 220 pounds and all muscle and he’ll get faster and be a different guy.”