Stars and Jars: Recruiting, Rocky Top Talk Style
In 2002, Tennessee had the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to Rivals. The class consisted of five five-star recruits and sixteen four-star guys, one of which was Justin Harrell. Here's how Harrell presented to Tennessee as a high school recruit:
About those four jars: the Rocky Top Talk Jars rating uses a formula that includes a "desirability" factor. Harrell had no offers from other schools, and so he had a modest four jars. We have anecdotal evidence, though, that players from Tennessee who commit early to play for the Vols generally do not get many offers from others schools, most likely due to the fact that other schools consider it a waste of time.
While he was not exactly a blue-chipper, Harrell still arrived on campus with a suitcase full of high school accolades. The versatile athlete from Martin, Tennessee was a three-year starter on both offense and defense for Westview High School. As senior tight end, he caught 18 passes for 354 yards and six touchdowns, and as a defensive lineman, he racked up 72 tackles, including 19 for a loss, and had four sacks and eight pass break ups.
Harrell was named West Tennessee’s Defensive Player of the Year by the Jackson Sun and finished the season as Tennessee’s AA Mr. Football. He made both Tom Lemming’s and PrepStar’s All-American teams, and he played in the Tennessee-Georgia All-Star game. Oh, and he averaged 17 points as a senior for his high school basketball team, as well.
Much like Robert Meachem, Harrell got off to a slow start at Tennessee. After a redshirt year in 2002, he broke his ankle in August just before the 2003 season and missed the first five games. He played in eight games that season, but in one of those games he played only one snap before re-aggravating his ankle injury. He finished the season with 10 tackles. The following March, he had to undergo surgery on his right leg, and he missed half of spring practice. Not exactly a fantastic beginning.
In 2004, Vol fans began to get a glimmer of Harrell’s true potential. In 13 games, he tallied 26 tackles, 17 of which were solo and 4.5 of which were for a total loss of 36 yards, and he added 1.5 sacks for 22 yards lost. He finished second on the team with 12 quarterback hurries, and he had two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and four pass breakups. In the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, Harrell was named Defensive MVP after an outstanding performance that included three tackles, one sack, and one fumble recovery.
The Season of Which We Do Not Speak
And then came The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. In August of 2005, the No. 3 Vols were indulging in pre-season fantasies of playing in the Rose Bowl for the National Championship. Barely three months later, Tennessee was limping across the finish line with a 5-6 record.
There was plenty of blame to go around for the first losing season in 17 yards and the first year without a bowl game in 16 years. Very little (if any), though, could be attributed to the defense in general or Justin Harrell in particular. Harrell was named the SEC Defensive Lineman after his performance against the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the first game of the season during which he returned an interception for 29 yards. He followed that effort up with a combined 14 tackles against arch-rival Florida (Tennessee lost due to a special teams debacle) and LSU, during which Harrell played a key role in the stunning Rally in the Valley by forcing a key fumble. In the final game of the season, against the Kentucky Wildcats, Harrell had four tackles, one forced fumble, one pass breakup, and one interception, which he returned seven yards for a touchdown.
Harrell’s fine stats for the season were lost in the wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. In 11 games played, he had 39 tackles (21 solo, 18 assists), 7.5 tackles for 16 yards lost, 2.5 sacks for 10 yards lost, two interceptions for 36 yards, three pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble, all despite the fact that the Volunteer defense was on the field much too long due to the fact that the offense couldn’t make a play to save themselves, much less string two decent plays together. For his 2005 efforts, Harrell was named to the All-SEC second team.
Forgoing the green to play for the Orange
Many thought that Harrell would bolt early for the NFL after the 2005 season. After all, he was projected to be drafted on the first day and there was nothing to return to but smoke and smoldering ashes. In addition, Tennessee would have to replace at least six of its starting front seven on defense, as senior defensive linemen Parys Haralson, Jesse Mahelona, and Jason Hall and linebackers Omar Gaither, Kevin Simon, and Jason Mitchell had graduated. And these weren’t your average, ordinary players, either. Not only did the team have to replace six of seven positions, but five of those positions were being vacated by NFL talent.
In yet another act endearing himself to the inhabitants of Big Orange Country, Harrell spurned the promise of a lucrative NFL career and decided to return for his senior season. He was promptly named to the media’s pre-season All-SEC first team. He was also identified as the eighth-best defensive tackle in the nation in College Football News’ pre-season listing and named to the Chuck Bednarik Award (for the nation’s most Outstanding Defensive Player) pre-season watch list.
In the first game of the season, Harrell essentially kept the opposing team’s offensive line occupied so that the Tennessee linebackers could make plays. When the Air Force Falcon’s flexbone option attack was piling up 281 rushing yards in the second game, most were shaking their heads in disbelief and wondering where in the world the Tennessee defense went. Those paying closer attention would note that it hobbled to the sideline when Justin Harrell left the game in the third quarter with an unspecified injury. After the game, Vol fans were told that Harrell had ruptured a bicep tendon and would be out for the remainder of the season, including the following week’s game against hated rival Florida. Bad, bad, bad.
On the Wednesday afternoon before the Florida game, someone launched an email alert from somewhere in East Tennessee, and it spread like wildfire through radio waves, phone lines, and internet tubes to every Vol fan across the globe. Justin Harrell had appeared suddenly in the defensive huddle mid-practice wearing shoulder pads and helmet. He was going to play.
The bicep injury still required surgery, but the pain was gone and there was no chance for further injury, provided his bad arm was properly fitted for the game. Tennessee coaches, players, and fans didn’t know how many snaps Harrell was going to get or how long he was going to be able to stay on the field. They just knew that Harrell was going to play one more game as a Tennessee Volunteer. In Neyland Stadium. Against the Gators. With one arm.
Knoxville was jumping. Even coach Fulmer was amped. "What a great statement to want to be out there with his teammates, the love and passion he has for his team," Fulmer said. "I’ve never seen it in college football, at least in my experience here. It’s great." And if you don’t know him, you’ll just have to trust me: that’s about as jazzed as Fulmer gets.
Fans were a bit more noticeably excited. Blogger Corn from a Jar (now a co-blogger here at Rocky Top Talk) seized the opportunity to adapt the popular Facts about Jack Bauer to the situation. An excerpt:
- Justin Harrell once arm wrestled Superman. The stipulations were the loser had to wear his underwear on the outside of his pants.
- Justin Harrell wasn't born, he was unleashed.
- When Batman is in trouble, he turns on the Justin Harrell signal.
- When Justin Harrell pees into the wind, the wind changes direction.
- The Incredible Hulk once got so angry that it turned into Justin Harrell.
- Superman wears Justin Harrell pajamas.
- CFAJ also, on a more serious note, spoke for all Vol fans when he articulated the probable effect of Harrell’s Swan Song:
Harrell's willingness to play injured is an inspiration to the Vol players. CPF took away the green no-contact jerseys in Fall practice to show the team how important it is to be tough as a football player. If anybody didn't get the message then, they get it now. It's easy to feel sorry for yourself in the fourth quarter when you're tired and a little banged up. It's a lot harder to feel sorry for yourself when you look out on the field and see your teammate playing with a torn biceps tendon.
Justin Harrell suiting up has brought an urgency back to this rivalry. In the 1990s, UT/UF was the alpha and omega of SEC football. In recent years, there's been a slight decline in the play of both programs, while other programs in the conference, most notably UGA, have gotten better. Harrell's insistence on playing this weekend brings back a certain front-page worthiness to the game.
Harrell's announcement has further energized an already juiced Tennessee fan base, and Neyland Stadium will be L-O-U-D on Saturday. Well, duh CFAJ, it's Neyland Stadium, and it's Florida week. Look, we all know Neyland doesn't always live up to its potential in the "noise" category. It did against Cal, and the crowd helped change that game. But Cal's not used to playing in that kind of environment, and Florida is. True, but with the ever-increasing complexity of offenses and defenses in the college game, being able to change the play at the line of scrimmage is critical to success. The Gators might not have as many false start penalties as Cal did, but the Vols can gain an edge if the crowd limits Chris Leak's ability to direct the offense from the line.
Harrell's contribution to the game would be more than whatever stats he could compile. He would serve as the inspiration of a team and a legion of its fans.
Well, not every story has a storybook ending. Harrell had three tackles on the night, but Florida shrewdly ran right at his left arm at a couple of key points in the game, exploiting a new weakness, just one of many, on the front line. Tennessee’s one point loss to the eventual national champions soured the evening, but Harrell just being there was heroic and inspirational for the rest of the team and the entire fan base. I made Week Three of the Animated BCS Race a tribute to No. 92.
Harrell underwent surgery to repair the injury shortly thereafter, but he never abdicated his leadership role on the team. Instead, he took to motivating the rest of the team in the meeting rooms and on the sidelines. "We have to call him ‘Coach Harrell’ now," Fulmer said. "He's been out here helping. He’s been in meetings and is one of the leaders and captains of this football team. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a guy like him. He’s one of those guys you want to stay around as long as you can keep them around."
Harrell is, and will always be, a hometown hero, not just for those from Martin, Tennessee, for all Tennessee Volunteer fans.
NFL draft prospects
Justin Harrell has been exceptionally well-coached by Dan Brooks, the same guy who produced John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Jessee Mahelona, Rashad Moore, Demetrin Veal, and Aubrayo Franklin. Draft analyst Mel Kiper says that Harrell is, overall, the 16th best player available in this year’s draft and believes that the Indianapolis Colts will pick him with the 32nd overall pick. According to Derek Harper, Harrell could be selected 21st by the Denver Broncos. Pat Kirwan, the outlier here, has suggested that Harrell could be the first Volunteer selected in this year’s draft due to the short supply of defensive linemen and the over-supply of receivers. He believes Harrell could go as high as the 15th pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pro Football Weekly has identified Justin Harrell as the third-best defensive tackle in this year’s draft and has this to say about him:
[V]ery fluid for his size with great functional playing strength ... shows good initial quickness to get into the gaps and disrupt, outstanding strength to stack the point and surprising range to make plays outside the tackle box.
May I suggest one addendum: "Played national champion to within one point with one arm tied behind his back."