How Tennessee’s crew of castoffs is atop school soccer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Byron Younger was on his means again from a exercise at Planet Health in January 2019 when he seen a flyer that modified his life, and finally, helped change the trajectory of Tennessee’s soccer program.

It was a flyer publicizing open tryouts for the Georgia Navy Faculty soccer workforce. On the time, Younger was working lengthy hours as an assistant supervisor at Greenback Basic in Columbus, Georgia. He’d additionally completed some moonlighting at Burger King and later labored some night time shifts at a Circle Ok comfort retailer.

“I wasn’t on anybody’s radar, at least not on anybody’s football radar. But I stayed in shape and never gave up on my dream of playing college football,” mentioned Younger, a 24-year-old senior exterior linebacker and the Vols’ prime pass-rusher. “It wasn’t an easy path, but a lot of guys on this team didn’t have easy paths. That’s a big part of what’s made us who we are.”

So simply who’re these Vols, apart from a workforce that has risen from the soccer ashes over the previous decade and a half to seize the No. 1 spot within the first School Soccer Playoff rankings heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 Georgia at Sanford Stadium?

Put merely, it is a workforce with much more five-star tales than five-star recruits.

“A lot of guys on this team were told what they weren’t or what they couldn’t do,” mentioned junior receiver Jalin Hyatt, who leads the nation with 14 landing catches. “That has a way of bringing a team together because you know what the guy beside you had to do just to get here.”

Up and down Tennessee’s roster, there are castoffs, transfers who got up on by their earlier colleges, breakout gamers who’ve seemingly come out of nowhere, gamers who’ve battled by adversity or had been spurned throughout the highschool recruiting course of and coaches who had been fired.

“I think everything that everybody’s gone through before they got here or while they were here is a part of the fabric of who they are,” mentioned Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, himself a castoff from Oklahoma, his alma mater. “I think it reveals the character and the competitiveness of those individuals too. I don’t know if there’s a chip on their shoulder necessarily, but it’s a part of the reason why we continue to get better.”

No participant personifies the id of this Tennessee workforce greater than quarterback Hendon Hooker, the odds-on Heisman Trophy favourite. It was made clear to Hooker following the 2020 season that his days as a quarterback at Virginia Tech had been over and he wanted to discover a new place to play. He discovered that place in Tennessee.

Hyatt is on the type of tear receivers dream about with 11 landing receptions in his previous 4 video games, after catching a complete of 4 TDs in his first two seasons on campus. As a highschool recruit, Hyatt was informed he was too skinny and too frail to play at both of the Energy 5 colleges (Clemson and South Carolina) in his dwelling state of South Carolina. That was regardless of catching 57 landing passes throughout his highschool profession at powerhouse Dutch Fork, which is positioned about 20 miles from South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.

Kicker Chase McGrath began his profession as a walk-on at USC earlier than tearing a ligament in his knee as a sophomore, sitting out the complete COVID-19 season in 2020, then transferring to Tennessee.

His knuckleball 40-yard discipline objective was the game-winner towards Alabama, snapping the Vols’ 15-game dropping streak within the collection and setting off a wild celebration at Neyland Stadium.

Cedric Tillman, the Vols’ All-SEC receiver from a 12 months in the past, got here to Tennessee from Las Vegas as a two-star recruit. His different gives had been from Hawai’i, UNLV and Weber State. Tillman has missed most of this season after present process ankle surgical procedure. He returned final week towards Kentucky, however the Vols restricted his snaps. Heupel mentioned Tillman is “ready to roll” towards Georgia.

There are comparable tales on the teaching employees.

Rodney Garner, one of many prime defensive position coaches and recruiters within the nation, was part of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn employees that was fired following the 2020 season.

Even Heupel was unceremoniously dumped in 2014 as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, the college he helped result in a nationwide championship in 2000 as its QB and the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Heupel initially landed in Oklahoma by means of Weber State and Snow School, a junior school in Ephraim, Utah, and solely after then-OU offensive coordinator Mike Leach satisfied the remainder of the Sooners’ employees that Heupel was price a scholarship.

“We all have some cool stories, and you know, we’re not done writing them,” Hooker mentioned. “We all have the same goal.”

That objective — step one, attending to Atlanta and successful an SEC championship — was unimaginable lower than two years in the past when Heupel took over a program that was in shambles with 30-plus gamers transferring out and an NCAA investigation looming. The college had launched its personal inside probe into recruiting improprieties that led to the firing of former coach Jeremy Pruitt for trigger.

However now that objective seems throughout the Vols’ attain, and so they can take a significant step towards it Saturday if they’ll snap a five-game dropping streak to Georgia in solely the third AP No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular-season matchup in SEC historical past.

Tennessee final gained the nationwide championship in 1998, and Garner, who was on the employees in 1996 and 1997, helped recruit a number of of the core gamers of that workforce, together with Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, Cosey Coleman and Deon Grant.

When Garner (who performed at Auburn below Pat Dye) had an opportunity to come back again to Tennessee below Heupel, it was a no brainer for Garner, his spouse Kim and their six daughters.

“Back then, you could walk anywhere with that ‘T’ on your chest, and it commanded respect,” Garner mentioned of his earlier stint on the college. “Even though I didn’t play here, this has always been a special place to me, and to play even a small part in its resurgence means a lot. I’m proud of the way these guys have played for each other, just like those teams in the ’90s. It was always more about Tennessee than it was about the individuals. That’s the thing we had to get back to when Coach Heupel and all of us got here.

“All people wanted to know how blessed they had been to be at Tennessee versus that Tennessee was blessed to have you ever. It has been superior to see these guys come collectively and play for one thing larger than themselves.”

It never hurts when you’re chasing a championship to have your best players on offense (Hooker) and defense (Young) also be two of your best leaders. They’re both 24 and have seen a little bit of everything.

Hooker started 15 games at Virginia Tech over three seasons, but never got the feeling that he was truly then-coach Justin Fuente’s guy. After a game against Clemson in 2020, Hooker began shivering and shaking on the sideline after losing a fumbled snap in the third quarter. Hooker walked back to the locker room with a trainer.

Fuente told reporters afterward that Hooker was “chilly.” Hooker said he had a reaction to some medication he was taking for a heart condition he had in 2019. Either way, he never played another snap at quarterback for Virginia Tech.

“I do not wish to make assumptions, however I had a sense one thing was occurring initially of that season. Hendon gained the job, however they mentioned the opposite child [Braxton Burmeister] deserved to play,” said Hooker’s father, Alan Hooker, who was a North Carolina A&T Hall of Fame quarterback.

“Someway, a way, they simply determined Hendon wasn’t their man. They did not have full belief in him, and he wasn’t going to be invited again. It was just about that easy.”

Hooker’s steady demeanor is unchanged whether he’s trying to elude a 250-pound defensive end, talking to a reporter or rallying his teammates. But his eyes narrow at any mention that Virginia Tech gave up on him following that Clemson game because the coaches there made it seem like he was soft.

“I am positive you possibly can ask my opponents, and so they’d inform you I am not mushy in any respect,” Hooker said. “And I do not get the entire ‘chilly’ factor both. In 2019, we performed in pouring-down rain towards Pittsburgh, and I threw three touchdowns with quick sleeves on. I did not hear something then about being chilly or mushy.”

Once he arrived at Tennessee, Hooker had to prove himself all over again. There was also a twist. Less than three weeks after he got on campus, Pruitt was fired as Tennessee’s coach, meaning Hooker had a whole new offensive system to learn, a system that couldn’t have been a better fit.

play

1:04

Mel Kiper Jr. details the 2023 NFL draft projection he sees for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker.

But even then, Hooker still hadn’t won the starting job after his first spring practice under Heupel. The Vols brought in Michigan transfer Joe Milton right after the spring, and Milton was named the starter for the first two games of the 2021 season.

But since moving in as the starter in Week 3 in 2021, Hooker has accounted for 59 touchdowns, completed 69.2% of his passes and thrown just three interceptions.

“We had seen him on tape and knew he was dynamic probably along with his ft,” Heupel said. “Now, did we envision that first spring that he was going to be enjoying like this? I can not say that. However the man has made such strides. It is loopy, simply basically, the psychological a part of the sport and being utterly assured and cozy in himself and being relaxed on the market.

“He understands that he doesn’t have to play perfect, and you put all that together, and he’s playing at such an elite level. It’s really fun to watch.”

As nice as he is been on the sector, Hooker’s precedence is to be a very good teammate. He was the primary one to volunteer to choose up his proper guard, Javontez Spraggins, each morning at 5:30 after Spraggins’ automotive died.

For the Kentucky recreation final week, Hooker had a number of of his previous teammates from Virginia Tech come to city after the Hokies had performed Thursday night time.

“They were all at Hendon’s apartment, sleeping on couches and the floor,” Alan Hooker mentioned.

Younger has been the defensive equal of Hooker for the Vols. He is performed his means into being a possible early-round NFL draft decide in his second season and leads the workforce with 13 quarterback pressures. Extra importantly, he is one of the revered voices within the locker room, and his story resonates with the complete workforce.

After graduating from tiny Carvers Bay Excessive Faculty in Hemingway, South Carolina, in 2017, Younger was small for an edge rusher (213 kilos) and did not have the grades to get right into a four-year school. He wound up at Gulf Coast Prep Sports activities Academy in Mt. Vernon, Alabama, performed two video games throughout the 2017 season, solely to have the college abruptly fold.

“The whole thing was a sham, and Byron came back home,” mentioned Ike Younger, Byron’s oldest brother. “But he wasn’t about to give up. That’s not how he was raised.”

Younger moved to Columbus, Georgia, the place Ike and a few of his brothers lived. There have been 13 kids within the household, and Ike is retired from the army. He has a son who’s a 12 months older than Byron.

“Byron wasn’t afraid of manual labor. None of us were,” Ike Younger mentioned. “We had a wood-burning stove and went out and chopped up wood and dragged it back home.”

That very same work ethic stored Younger going for practically a 12 months and a half, whether or not he was stocking cabinets at Greenback Basic or opening and shutting the shop.

“I still think about those days and what it taught me,” Younger mentioned. “In fact, sometimes when we’re about to run back on the field, [teammate] Roman Harrison will look at me and say, ‘Remember Dollar General. Remember where you came from.'”

Younger tried out for and made the Georgia Navy Faculty workforce and blossomed in 2019 as one of many extra extremely recruited junior school prospects within the nation. He bought larger and stronger and was a terror chasing down quarterbacks. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19, however his 2019 tape was adequate that a number of SEC colleges pursued him.

A kind of colleges was Auburn, and Garner was the purpose man in recruiting Younger. On the time, Younger was near selecting the Tigers, however as destiny would have it, he and Garner ended up collectively at Tennessee.

“I’m just glad it worked out the way it did because I really wanted him when I was at Auburn before we got fired there,” Garner mentioned. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. I almost came back here to Tennessee when Lane [Kiffin] got the job. I came up here and interviewed and everything. I actually took the job before I came. But I got up here and things just didn’t feel right.”

Positive sufficient, Kiffin left Tennessee lower than a 12 months later for USC.

Younger appears to be like again on his journey and has that very same “it was meant to be” feeling. He jokes that he has a “senior citizen” on the workforce in Hooker, who he can relate to amid all of the youthful gamers in this system.

“I went the long route to get here and so did Hendon. We weren’t the only ones,” Younger mentioned. “A lot of guys had to find new places to play. We’ve found that place, and we’re not close to being done.”

Hyatt thought he had discovered his place at Virginia Tech when he dedicated to the Hokies in February 2019. Each Clemson and South Carolina handed on him, primarily as a result of he was 153 kilos popping out of highschool and so they thought he wasn’t sturdy sufficient to play at a excessive degree.

“I went to camps at Clemson and South Carolina just to showcase my skills,” Hyatt mentioned. “They just kept saying, ‘We’ll see. We’ll see.’ But nothing ever came of it.”

It will not be misplaced on Hyatt that two of the individuals who did not assume he might lower it at South Carolina will likely be on the Georgia sideline Saturday. Will Muschamp, the Dawgs’ defensive coordinator, was South Carolina’s head coach throughout Hyatt’s recruitment, whereas Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s receivers coach, was the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator and receivers coach.

“It sucked not getting an offer from your hometown school because I feel like they should be the first ones to offer,” Hyatt mentioned. “But they never did, and I know why. Things work out the way they’re supposed to, and I’m glad they thought I was too small. It helped lead me here, and look at what all I would have missed.”

Hyatt had gives from different FBS colleges and all the time believed his pace would set him aside regardless of how skinny he was. His father, Jamie, felt the identical means.

Jamie remembers a dialog that they had with Muschamp the summer season earlier than Jalin’s junior 12 months in highschool. Jamie mentioned Jalin ran a scorching 40-yard sprint and that Muschamp even known as Jalin’s highschool coach at Dutch Fork, Tom Knotts, to inform him it was one of many quickest 40 occasions he’d ever seen.

After they met afterward, Jamie mentioned Muschamp checked out Jalin and mentioned, “Man, you’re fast, but you need to eat more peanut butter.”

At that time, nothing else wanted to be mentioned.

“I still talk to Coach Muschamp and we chop it up. [Georgia] is recruiting my younger son,” mentioned Jamie, whose son Devin is attending IMG Academy. “But I can tell you — and I don’t think Coach Muschamp meant it personally — that our business was done with South Carolina after that. We needed to move on, and I know Jalin has used it for motivation.”

Hyatt’s dedication to Virginia Tech did not final. Former Tennessee nationwide championship-winning quarterback Martin was one of many coaches on Pruitt’s employees who closed the deal on getting Hyatt to flip to the Vols.

“I’d always wanted to play in the SEC too, because you want to play against the best,” Hyatt mentioned.

One of many first folks Hooker texted when he bought to campus was Hyatt. They met when Hyatt was on a recruiting go to to Virginia Tech.

“Where do we meet? Let’s go throw,” Hooker’s textual content learn.

And as Hyatt would get to the soccer advanced day-after-day, the primary automotive he would see was Hooker’s.

“His car was the last one there too,” Hyatt mentioned. “I thought, ‘Does he ever leave?'”

Hooker’s focus, demeanor and work ethic all wore off on Hyatt, to not point out nearly everyone else on the workforce. Hyatt admitted he wanted to mature his first couple of years on campus.

However now, there’s not a extra dynamic mixture in school soccer than Hooker and Hyatt; the pair has been on the core of an offense that leads the nation in scoring (49.4 factors per recreation).

“It’s all of our confidence, really, that’s grown, and that goes straight to Coach Heup,” Hyatt mentioned. “As an offense, I feel like when we step on the field there’s nobody that can stop us. The only people who can stop us are ourselves.”

One of many favourite traditions of the Hooker household is watching Christmas specials yearly. A staple is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Alan Hooker appears to be like at this Tennessee workforce, a workforce that has surpassed even the wildest expectations, and can not help however take into consideration Rudolph’s go to to the Land of the Misfit Toys.

“That’s kind of what you have with Tennessee,” Alan Hooker mentioned. “All these guys have different stories, some of them stories of rejection. But in the right setting, they’re a perfect fit.”

And if the Vols have their means, that excellent match will result in an ideal season.