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Getting to know Tennessee's class of 2007: No. 12, OL Darris Sawtelle

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Not him.

Introducing No. 12 in Tennessee’s class of 2007, offensive lineman Darris Sawtelle.

Not to be confused with Darius, the ruler of Persia or even with the relatively more contemporary Darris McCord. No, McCord is the former Vol and defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions, member of the original Fearsome Foursome, and this Darris’ grandfather:

Picture this: Circa, 1950. Franklin, Tennessee high school junior Darris McCord finally decides to trot his natural athletic ability onto the football field. He plays one year at Franklin High School and another at Battle Ground Academy. His stellar work in those two years catches the eye of one General Robert R. Neyland, who recruits him to play for the Volunteers. McCord signs up to play defensive end and offensive tackle for the Big Orange from 1952 through 1954 and becomes a team captain and an All-American. But he’s not done yet. No, McCord plays another 13 years for the Detroit Lions as an original member of the Fearsome Foursome. In the Lore of the Lion, he’s one of the greatest of all time.

Flash forward 22 years: McCord’s daughter births a thirteen pound newborn (so she’s tough, too, no?), names him after her father, and swaddles him in an orange and white crib. Young Darris grows up and large in Michigan, and although his famous grandfather does not pressure him to follow in his footsteps, indentations left by cleated size 20s are hard to avoid. The one nugget of advice his grandfather gives to the middle school footballer ends up defining him. "Darris," his grandfather says, "Once you step inside those lines, nobody’s a friend." Given permission, young Darris unleashes what had always been lurking just beneath the surface -- a knack for playing angry. "I think it’s inbred," young Darris later says. "It’s in my blood to want to . . . hit people."

SCREECH! Abrupt shift to past tense ahead!

Although he grew up in Michigan, Sawtelle traveled to Knoxville at least annually and grew up a fan of both East Tennessee and the Volunteers. His happiest day came at the end of the 2005 high school football season on the day that he both won the state championship and received a scholarship offer to play for Tennessee:

It was incredible because I had just played a very, very hard game. We edged it out 14-7, and it was intense. You watch that movie Friday Night Lights and people say that’s a bunch of drama, but it’s really pretty close to the way things are.

In the locker room everybody was celebrating and I was just exhausted. I was actually invited to a party, but I decided not to do that. Instead I went home and did homework. It was a responsibility. So I’m sitting at the counter working and my dad just comes by and hands me the mail like he usually does and there’s this big manila envelope from Tennessee. I opened that envelope and there’s that checkered header on it with the T. The letter said: "Dear Darris we’re offering you a full scholarship," and that was just . . . wow. That’s when it hit me we had won the state championship. I realized with that and getting the offer from Tennessee I had met all my goals that year. Seeing that just made it all the more clear. I think it was the happiest day of my life.

Still, Sawtelle committing to Tennessee was not a forgone conclusion. For one thing, home-state Michigan was in the mix. For another, McCord, in keeping with his laissez-faire approach to Sawtelle’s football career, refused to give voice to his desire to see his grandson in don’t-shoot-me-I’m-not-a-deer orange. No, Sawtelle would be allowed to decide for himself.

Well, almost. See, it’s one thing to grow up a fan of Tennessee. It’s quite another to be an actual Volunteer for your entire adult life, one who still, at the not-so-spry age of 75 still finds that extra jig in his step around the Third Saturday in October. No, son. You can play football or not. If you choose to play football, you can play for whatever school you choose, save one. You cannot play football for Alabama. That’s where I put my vintage cleats down.

It’s true. McCord forbade Sawtelle from even entertaining an offer from the Crimson Tide. If he caught the faintest whiff of a letter from a Tuscaloosa zip code, he would hunt it down and tear it up. He even told his own beloved grandson that if he went to Alabama, his family would disown him and he’d have to change his name to something other than Darris.

McCord may or may not have been kidding about that last bit. It’s hard to tell. We’ll never really know, because on April 8, 2006, while watching his grandfather practically skip through a checkerboard end zone just before the Orange and White Game in a stadium named after his former coach, Darris made his decision:

I saw him and how happy he was over those hedges down there on the field, and I watched the team and watched the coaches, and I looked all around me and said to myself this is right.

Later that day, in coach Fulmer’s office with his parents and grandparents, with none of them (presumably) brandishing firearms, Sawtelle made it official and called it his proudest moment:

It was so special. To tell the coaches in front of my grandfather was unbelievable. It was a perfect way to do it. My grandfather is just kind of floating around tonight.

Of course, there were reasons for committing to Tennessee other than honoring his grandfather. There was the friendly atmosphere in the locker room, on the campus, and all around Knoxville, not to mention the fact that Neyland is a more impressive stadium than Michigan’s Big House. Sawtelle may have grown up in Michigan, but somehow, Tennessee was home.

Sawtelle’s decision to announce his intention to play for Tennessee may have seemed practically predestined in one respect, but it was almost shocking in another. The almost absurdly premature commitment from a highly-touted, out of state recruit was a sorely-needed antidote to the effects of The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. Sawtelle was more than happy to wave his shiny five-star rating as  a beacon to lure other high-profilers to the reclamation project.

Shooting stars

Then the strangest thing happened: one of Sawtelle’s stars up and flamed out. In the first week of June, 2006, changed his rating to four-stars, moved him from the Top Ten Offensive Lineman in the Nation to 17th (he ended up 14th when it was all said and done), and dropped him completely out of Scout’s Top 100. Rivals also had him at only four stars, but at least gave him a position ranking of 10. ESPN ranked Sawtelle the nation’s No. 26 offensive tackle.

So, pooh on the rating services. But although the snowball grew smaller and rolled up the hill instead of down it, Sawtelle took it all in stride, recognizing that his early commitment basically killed his headline value and that his rating declined as a result.

The recruiting services may have lost interest in Sawtelle by mid-summer, but other schools had not. Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona State, Toledo, Michigan State, and others kept right on recruiting him. New Tide head coach Nick Saban went so far as to call Sawtelle after he had enrolled at Tennessee. No word on how Grandpappy McCord responded to that overture. Perhaps with rage. Or maybe it just struck him funny:

In all, Sawtelle laughed at the offers of Arizona State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska.

One article reports that Ohio State and Southern Cal had both offered Sawtelle as well, but I couldn’t confirm that, and another article seems to indicate that Southern Cal in fact did not make an offer. Had I been able to confirm both offers, Sawtelle would have been a Nine Jar player and No. 6 in this year’s class.

Several major programs in fact did at least show interest in Sawtelle, though, including both the Buckeyes and the Trojans, as well as Penn State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Auburn, and all three Florida schools.

Substance beneath the veneer

Okay, so he’s got the genes and the attention of the suitors, but what can he do? Well, first, have a look at the free video at Varsity Athletes USA. Go low on him and he’ll cover you up. Take him on high, and he’ll push you 15 yards downfield. He has excellent body control. And balance. And power, strength, and persistence. He’s a leader with a sense of humor. He’s big, with room to grow. Smart. Humble. A technician.

And best of all, the three-year varsity starter has a bridled nasty streak, as evidenced by his 121 knockdown blocks.

Sawtelle was All-Catholic, All-County, and All-Metro as a senior, and he was named to the Detroit News’ Dream Team. He was also invited to play in the Offensive-Defensive All-American Bowl in Florida.

One of five early enrollees, Sawtelle participated in spring practice and the 2007 Orange and White Game in an attempt to become only the third player in UT history (Billy Mayo and Michael Munoz are the others) to start the first game on the offensive line as a true freshman.

Don’t think he can’t.

Rocky Top Talk Mnemonic

Nasty but bridled
Legacy comes home and has
No time for Saban

Darris Sawtelle, welcome home.

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