Introducing No. 4 in Tennessee’s class of 2007, wide receiver Ahmad Paige
It was only May, and Sterlington, Louisiana wide receiver Ahmad Paige had already lost count of how many scholarship offers he’d received. Paige’s stellar junior season – featuring a 26-yard per catch average and a touchdown every three touches (45 receptions for 1,208 yards and 17 touchdowns) – drew a pestilent horde from the far corners of the nation like an industrial bug zapper humming away in the humid shadows of a Louisiana midnight. While most approached with reckless audacity and were summarily fried to a crisp, six more subtle suitors flirted with the mesmerizing glow for the next eight months. Only one survived.
Dancing with death
Paige initially proclaimed a fondness for state universities of the Louisiana and Florida varieties, naming LSU and FSU his front runners in mid-May. By Independence Day, Miami, Tennessee, Florida, and Southern Cal had joined the swarm. Paige was working two summer jobs at the time (at Sonic and a shoe store, apt positions for a speedster with a 4.4 forty time) because he was bent on taking all five of his official visits and he needed the money to make it work. Five visits, six schools. One would need to be quickly lured into the electric calamity.
He may not have intended it this way, but on September 7, 2006, Paige commenced the tortuously slow dance of death with the first victim of the six by giving a soft verbal commitment to Bobby Bowden and FSU. He cited the "family feel" of the program as the reason for this move. Paige fixed one hypnotic eye on the Bowdens and winked to the rest with his other: sure, he was committing to FSU, but he was still going to take all of the visits for which he’d been working so hard.
Enough with the zapper already!
And now I’m going to abruptly drop the whole fried insect theme because in an effort to make it more interesting, I just wasted an entire 30 minutes of my life watching drunken fools lick bug zappers on YouTube. Oh, the many flavors of folly.
Okay, so where was I? Oh, yeah. Paige had sort of committed to FSU. He still had a list of six, but Georgia had replaced LSU as one of the chosen because head coach Mark Richt "was the offensive coordinator when Florida State was good on offense and they won," which is a hilarious statement if you harbor any animus toward the FSU program. About this time, Paige really started talking up Tennessee assistant coach Trooper Taylor, too, calling him a "phenomenal guy."
Anyway, Paige took an official visit to Georgia for the Tennessee game. It was Paige’s first college football game, and "the atmosphere was amazing." He loved Richt and the rest of the coaching staff, and he thought the Bulldogs were "going in the right direction." Of course, Tennessee came away looking pretty good, too, as they domesticated the Dawgs 51-33.
For his next official visit, Paige traveled to Knoxville to take in the Tennessee-LSU game the first weekend in November. He came away impressed:
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I loved it up there, it was a great place, a great campus and Knoxville's a really nice town. It's everything that coach Taylor had been telling me it was. I liked my visit a lot. The game, the crowd, the game-day atmosphere, all that stuff was great. I had a lot of fun up there."
But the most impressive thing about Knoxville was apparently Paige’s one-on-one time with Trooper Taylor:
I knew that Taylor was an impressive conversationalist, but if riding in a car with him is better than a home football Saturday, well then, the man’s even better than I thought.
The next weekend, Paige went to Gainesville and witnessed Florida’s equivalent of Clint Stoerner’s fumble – an improbably fantastic play clearing the way to a national championship. (Florida fans will no doubt roll their eyes at this comparison, but Billy Ratliff caused that fumble!) Paige saw Florida beaten mercilessly by South Carolina for four quarters only to win on a blocked field goal on the last play of the game. That, in addition to seeing real alligators (Sterlington is in northern Louisiana, by the way), made an impression:
Weighing wacky factors
Okay, so all of the games for all of his official visits were good, but let’s recap the more bizarre, off-the-field factors. Paige liked Gainesville because he got to see real alligators, he liked Tennessee because he enjoyed his car ride with Trooper Taylor, he liked Georgia because Richt was the offensive coordinator of his favorite school back when they were good, and he liked Florida State because of the "family feel."
Well, the family feel at Florida State was not only wacky, it was falling apart. The same day that Jarvis Moss salvaged Florida’s chances at a national title, Florida State lost 30-0 to
traditional ACC powerhouse Wake Forest. Jeff Bowden gave Bobby Bowden his resignation letter later that week, and while Paige found the move worrisome, he didn’t cut the Seminoles loose immediately.
So by December 27, with Georgia apparently having lost interest, Paige had narrowed it down to FSU, Florida, Tennessee, and Southern Cal. Paige repeatedly declined to revoke his commitment to FSU and continued to say that he would decide between those four schools. It certainly looked like Florida’s game to lose, though, as Paige showed up for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game wearing a Florida hat the first week of January and later commented on how much the receivers touched the ball during the Gators’ victory over Ohio State for the national championship.
In mid-January, Paige took his official visit to FSU, and although he enjoyed the visit, the coaching changes were just too much to overcome, and Paige eliminated them for good on January 28. Now, with just over a week left before signing day, Paige had to choose between Florida, Tennessee, and Southern Cal. Florida was pressing Paige for an answer ASAP!!!1111!! because they were filling up, and although Tennessee had already signed several receivers, they told Paige that they were holding one for him. Southern Cal was hoping to impress during Paige’s final official visit later in the week.
Taylor turns Paige
Perhaps it was the fact that Florida had pressured him to make a decision. Or Robert Meachem’s declaration for the NFL draft making room for three rather than two new wide receivers for the first snap of the season. Shoot, maybe Trooper Taylor just got the guy in the car again for another ride. Whatever it was, Florida was suddenly out of the race on February 4. On that same day, Paige was weighing Southern Cal’s pros (early opportunities for receivers) and cons (man, that was a long trip!)
On Signing Day Eve, Paige broke the news to Trooper Taylor that he’d be going to Southern Cal. He should have written him a letter, because Taylor talked him out of it on the phone, and Paige signed the next day with Tennessee. Taylor had turned Paige:
Somebody say woo for Trooper.
Numbers! And Words!
By the way, in addition to the junior season stats I mentioned earlier, Paige also returned two kickoffs and one interception for touchdowns. As a senior, he was double- and triple-teamed despite the fact that his team operated out of a run-first offense, and he still managed some impressive numbers, catching 41 passes for 863 yards and 12 touchdowns and returning a kickoff 98 yards for a score.
Paige was a four-year letterman, three-year starter, and a senior captain for his high school football team. He earned first team all-district and all-northeast Louisiana three times and all-state twice, once as a unanimous selection. As I mentioned in passing earlier, he was also a U.S. Army All-American.
Scout gives Paige five stars and ranks him as the 9th best (4th best at one time) receiver in the country. Rivals gives Paige four stars and says he’s the 14th best (13th at one time) wide receiver nationally. According to ESPN, he’s the No. 33 receiver in the country.
I couldn’t find any free video of this guy, so we’ll have to rely on words. Words like size. Speed. Hands. Versatility. Character. Play Maker. Or, in the words of Garrett Shea, the Director of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl:
Did he say explosive? I guess that’s not a drawback after all.
Ahmad Paige, welcome to Tennessee!