On Dec. 7, Bradley Central’s Austin Sanders, the TSSAA Class 3A Mr. Football Offensive Lineman of the Year, spoke briefly on the phone with Butch Jones only hours after he was introduced as Tennessee’s new football coach.
This past weekend Sanders, a 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound senior tackle, and several other players got to meet Jones in a 2 ½-hour dinner gathering in the press box at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
“The whole coaching staff was there,” Sanders said Monday. “They’re all really nice and really glad to be at Tennessee.”
Sanders committed to Tennessee prior to his junior season at Bradley Central and never wavered in his decision to play for the Vols, even when Derek Dooley was fired on Nov. 18.
Jones and his assistants – defensive coordinator John Jancek, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, Mark Elder (tight ends), Don Mahoney (offensive line), Steve Stripling (defensive line), Jay Graham (running backs), Willie Martinez (safeties), Tommy Thigpen (corner backs) and Zach Azzanni (receivers) – used Saturday’s event to meet invited players and their relatives and friends.
Sanders took full advantage of the opportunity.
“My parents (Jennifer Baker and Mark Sanders), stepmom (Diane Sanders), girlfriend (Lauren Lawson) and her mother (Stephanie Culberson) went with me,” Sanders said. “They had the same thoughts I had – they were excited to be up there and finally meet coach Jones. There was nothing negative at all about the meeting. We had a good time and it turned out really good.
“My parents were more excited than I was. They really enjoyed it all.”
Sanders also said the players committed to the Vols at the meet-and-greet were also enthused about Jones and his new staff.
Sanders left Knoxville reassured about his intentions to play at Tennessee.
“I’m for sure really excited to get up there,” he said. “I’ll be going up there in late June or early July.”
Sanders’ earlier phone conversation, which lasted 5 or 6 minutes, came on Friday night after Jones was announced as the Vols’ 24th head coach earlier in the day in the Peyton Manning Locker Room at Neyland Stadium.
On the following day, Sanders was in Cookeville, Tenn., at 6 a.m. to take the college entrance ACT and then played for the East in the East-West All-Star game at Tennessee Tech University. The East won, 41-20.
“I didn’t get much out of the phone call with coach Jones,” Sanders said. “Saturday was a fun day. I didn’t ask him any questions, really. We just chit-chatted and I listened a lot to what he had to say. He said he was really excited to get started.”
Sanders twice previously scored 17 on the ACT and will get the results of his latest test in a few weeks.
“If I get an 18 on this one I’ll probably take it one more time,” he said.
Sanders will sign with the Vols on Feb. 6, National Signing Day.
A couple of players have de-committed from the Vols since Dooley’s ouster.
“Honestly, I don’t have much to say about that,” Sanders said. “If you don’t want to play for Tennessee, then don’t. It’s kind of sad, really.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)