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VOL. 132 | NO. 253 | Friday, December 22, 2017


Dave Link

Amid the Tumult, a Vol Legacy Finally Gets His Call

DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Jacob Warren got one of the best phone calls of his life a couple of weeks ago. The senior tight end at Farragut High School was relieved to hear what new Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt told him.

“I talked to him the other day and he was just saying he’s excited to get going, and they were honoring my commitment, which was amazing to hear,” Warren said last week at the Farragut fieldhouse.

University of Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer, left, and new head football coach Jeremy Pruitt. Jacob Warren, an early signee from Farragut High, is confident Fulmer and Pruitt will turn the program around. (Calvin Mattheis/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

“That’s kind of one thing I’ve been worried about, was when they do get a new coaching staff, whether I would still be in the picture, and luckily when I talked to him, he reassured me that they still wanted me, and I’d still make a difference on the team.”

Warren, who signed with Tennessee on Wednesday, wasn’t alone in his concerns. Recruits across the nation shared the same worries. With all the coaching changes at Power 5 programs, new coaching staffs were cutting ties with recruits from previous staffs and bringing in their own recruits.

Pruitt and his new staff made a couple of those tough calls in the days before the first-ever early signing period for football, which started Wednesday and ended Friday.

Warren’s father, James, an offensive lineman for Tennessee from 1989-93, had concerns about Jacob’s future at his alma mater during the weeks after Butch Jones’ Nov. 12 firing and the month-long search for the replacement.

“It was up in the air for everybody,” James Warren says. “This was our first time going through this, of course, and you always hear a new staff coming in, the coach is going to want to bring in his guys, and I’m like, ‘Jacob’s going to be signing in about three weeks, are they going to want him?’

“It was just a rollercoaster of emotions because you never know. You can see what’s been going on. We’re just really happy to be in the Vol family, for sure.”

Tennessee’s coaches opted not to honor commitments from several players, including quarterback Michael Penix of Tampa Bay Tech High School and cornerbacks Brandon Cross and Tanner Ingle of Orlando, primarily because they didn’t fit Pruitt’s system and recruiting profile.

Other players de-committed from Tennessee due to the coaching change and the lingering uncertainty in the program, among them five-star offensive lineman Cade Mays of Knoxville Catholic High School, who de-committed Dec. 7, and four-star quarterback Adrian Martinez of Clovis West High/Fresno, California, who de-committed Dec. 13 and committed to Nebraska.

Warren signed with the Vols at Farragut High School, joining Gibbs High offensive lineman Ollie Lane who had signed two hours earlier.

Mays narrowed his choices to Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State, but got a visit from Pruitt and new athletic director Phillip Fulmer last week at Catholic and planned to sign Wednesday afternoon.

Warren never wavered on his May 24 commitment to Tennessee, hoping to play for his dream school. His brother, Joshua, is a freshman at UT, but a student only.

“It’s a fresh start, a new era, to say the least, and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Warren acknowledges. “I don’t really know what it’s like yet just because it’s new, but I’m very excited and looking forward to just contributing to the new culture there and everything that’s going on there.”

Warren will find out what it’s like in a hurry. He graduates from Farragut this month and will be a January enrollee with the Vols.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Warren will immediately join in Tennessee’s winter training program before spring practices.

“That’s the upside of (Warren) right now is with the frame he’s got, when he gets in college and gets on a training table and gets in the weight room, he can put that weight on,” Farragut coach Eddie Courtney explains.

“He has great hands, runs great routes. He realizes the thing he’s got to work on is his blocking because he wants to play tight end. From that standpoint, his upside is his potential, straight ahead of him.”

Warren was a multi-sport athlete as a youth, playing football, hockey, lacrosse, basketball and baseball. He grew up going to Tennessee football games. By his middle school days, Warren played only football and basketball, and he stopped playing basketball after his freshman year at Farragut.

“I had somebody ask me about 20 minutes ago why I didn’t play basketball,” Warren recalls. “I said it’s just not my thing, and I’d rather have time to develop toward football because it was something I began to realize I could make something out of.”

Courtney saw the potential when a long-and-lanky Warren showed up for football as a freshman at Farragut.

By his junior year, Warren was a big-time playmaker, thanks in large part to then-senior quarterback Adam Fulton, as the Admirals raced to a 14-1 record and Class 5A state championship, the first in program history. He finished with 39 catches for 479 yards and nine touchdowns.

Warren was offered by Tennessee in December of 2016 during a call from Larry Scott, an assistant under Jones from 2016-17. He’s the first Farragut player to sign a scholarship as a freshman at Tennessee in more than 20 years.

“I can’t tell you how excited I was,” Warren recalls. “I was in the middle of an anatomy and physiology class. I told my teacher, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to take this call. I’ve got to miss class. I’m sorry.’

“So, I stepped outside. It was cold, winter time. I was out there in a T-shirt talking to Coach Scott. He was like, ‘How did I not know you were in my backyard? How have I not offered you yet?’ I told him I didn’t know, I’ve been here all along. I was just excited to hear them say everything and kind of make this whole dream become a reality.”

It didn’t stop Warren from enjoying the recruiting process. He took visits to Oregon, South Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Auburn, Vanderbilt and others.

James Warren and his wife, Heather, didn’t try to sway Jacob’s decision.

“Fortunately, I played at Tennessee, but at the end of the day, it was Jacob’s decision because it’s his life,” James says. “We’ve got to let him live it, no matter what we think. We just kind of gave him our input and let him make his mind up, and it’s been made up for a long time on Tennessee.”

Jacob realized the West Coast might not be an option during a visit to Oregon last spring. After a couple of layovers at airports, Jacob and his mom took a flight to Portland, Oregon, but missed the connecting flight to Eugene where the Oregon campus is located. They spent the night in the airport, caught an early-morning flight to Eugene, and drove straight to campus.

“That just kind of made me realize what I have here,” Jacob says. “It might cost me $5 in gas to get down the street to go to school, whereas when you’re going across the country, it takes me a whole day or so to get back.

“Say if anything happens to me or my family, I’ll be able to see them really fast here. It’s just a convenience thing, and it definitely wasn’t convenient going across the country. I enjoyed the Oregon visit, but (the travel) did kind of take away a little bit of it.”

After committing to the Vols last summer, Warren focused on his senior season and the academics needed to graduate in December.

Although Warren had another big season with 39 catches for 659 yards and eight touchdowns – Farragut wasn’t able to repeat as state champion, this time losing eventual Class 6A champion Maryville in a second-round playoff game.

Courtney saw Warren take on a new role in 2017.

“I know what kind of character guy he is,” Courtney notes. “I know he’ll do everything to be coached. He’s very coachable, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ This past year, seriously, he got that recruiting stuff behind him, and then he was really a great team leader for our football team.”

The Warren household was elated when Fulmer was hired as Tennessee’s athletic director Dec. 1, hours after John Currie was placed on paid leave by the university.

Fulmer was James Warren’s position coach from 1989 to 1992, and his head coach during the 1993 season when Fulmer replaced Johnny Majors.

“I knew then some stuff would get done,” James Warren said of Fulmer’s hiring as AD. “I knew (Fulmer) would find the right guy (in a head coach), and hopefully, it wouldn’t take too long.

“Through this whole process, especially over the weeks during the coaching search, me and Jacob’s mother have been talking to him, asking him if he wanted to maybe reopen his commitment or have a backup school you maybe want to go to.

“He was UT, 100 percent. I’m super excited about Coach Fulmer taking over as AD. He’s going to get us in the right direction, for sure.”

Vol Nation is counting on Pruitt to get the football program headed in the right direction. The Warren family is on board, and Jacob can’t wait to be part of a new era of Tennessee football.

“(Pruitt) hasn’t been a head coach yet, but I don’t think that’s something to put him down about,” Jacob says. “I think that’s just something to be excited for because he’s new, he’s fresh, and he’s ready to go.

“Obviously, he’s been with very successful programs, so he has a good track record and a good background. When I talked to him on the phone, he sounds like he’s from here.

“He sounds like a good old East Tennessee boy. I’m excited. I’m definitely happy with the hire.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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