Austin Peay’s new football coach, Will Healy, knows his way around Chattanooga.
He proved Wednesday he’ll be able to recruit Scenic City football talent as well. When the day ended, Healy's 2016 class was rated No. 10 nationally in FCS and No. 1 in the Ohio Valley Conference, according to the 247 Sports recruiting service.
Healy cut a wide swatch around town on National Signing Day by landing four recruits – two from Ooltewah and a pair of McCallie Blue Tornado. Three of the four are destined to play defense.
The Owls, who sent nine players up to the “next level,” had two players sign scholarships to APSU – defensive stalwarts Nick Putman and linebacker Tyler Reid. They led the Owls to a Region 4-5A regular season title and No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Owls finished 10-3 and lost to postseason nemesis Rhea County in the TSSAA quarterfinals.
“I’ve been waiting for this day all my life,” said Putman, the Region Defensive Player of the Year. “Coach Healy called me a lot and kept telling me Tech was a special place. I went up there and fell in love with the place. He cares and I trust him when he says we’ll turn the program around.”
Reid, pound-for-pound probably the best defender the Owls’ defense had, was a quick believer of Healy’s pitch.
“I was on my visit last weekend when they offered,” the all-region player said. “Healy said he believed in me and five minutes later I committed.”
The Owls allowed just 54 points in their first eight games, posted two shutouts and held four other teams to nine or fewer points.
Middle linebacker Jeremiah Jackson, who signed with Tennessee Tech, was a key reason teams had difficulty picking up first downs, much less find the end zone.
“I talked to the coaches up there and I believed every word that came out of head coach Marcus Satterfield’s mouth,” said Jackson, whose 450-plus tackles is the school’s all-time record. “When coach (Patrick) Prince offered me a scholarship, I was ready to be an Eagle in 15 minutes.
Jackson, a Class 5A Mr. Football finalist before being sidetracked with a domestic assault late in the season, said he was “devastated and scared” after the incident and concerned his college future had been placed in doubt.
“But for people who know me know I never gave anybody trouble before or since that, but I did let a lot of people down. I’m happy to be out of that situation and now I can move on to college. One thing about Tech is that I won’t be too far away from my 6-month-old son. That was important to me.”
The other Owls star defender to sign was Rashun Freeman, a threat in various positions on the field who joined Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Freeman was an offensive and defensive powerhouse late in the regular season and into the playoffs when the Owls got past the second round for first time in three years.
And it didn’t take much to light his fuse.
Opponents will testify.
“Signing today means a lot,” he said. “It has been my dream since I was a little kid, to take my talents to the next level. I felt like our defense made a statement this year and I’m happy all of us are going to play in college.”
Freeman also considered William & Mary, Richmond, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Navy and Air Force.
“But I love the UTC, my parents can see me play and it’s a very good program,” he said. “The players and coaches are great.”
Freeman is expected to primarily play in the secondary and return kicks and punts, which is likely to give him an early path to playing time.
Other Owls that will move on to the college ranks are Dylan Mahoney to Austin Peay, Aidan Panni to Tennessee Tech, Robbie Garren to Bethel College and London Elrod and Peyton Oliver to Berry College.
The Blue Tornado produced athlete JaVaughn Craig and defensive lineman Corey McDonald – they’re cousins – for Healy’s first recruiting class.
McCallie went 6-6 this season and McDonald was the team’s second-leading tackler with 53 stops. Craig had 37 tackles and was a triple threat on offense running, throwing and catching the ball.
“I was the first Chattanooga player to commit to Austin Peay,” McDonald said at a morning signing ceremony, “and I actually help recruit all the other guys. Nick was the hardest guy to join up because he had already committed (Tennessee Tech). I had to persuade JaVaughn, too.
“I want to be a difference-maker and help build that program up. Coach Healy is the guy to help us achieve that. I’ve worked hard for this opportunity at Austin Peay.”
Craig was a do-it-all type player and contributed in many ways to the Blue Tornado. He rushed for 219 yards, passed for 262, caught passes for another 154 and accounted for nine touchdowns for coach Ralph Potter’s squad.
Defensively, Craig intercepted two passes.
“I’m really excited and blessed about experience college life,” he said. “I’ve dreamed a long time about playing college football. And it’s nice that Corey and I will be going to Austin Peay together. When we were being recruited, I told Corey to do what was best for him because you’re going to have to deal with his decision the rest of your life.
“But we visited together and said, ‘Hey, this may happen.’ ”
Craig is confident Healy will give him a shot to play quarterback.
Healy recruited Craig for two years while he was still coaching at Tennessee-Chattanooga. Had he stayed with the Mocs, could Craig see himself staying in town to play collegiately.
“I could see that happening,” Craig said. “But when he went to Austin Peay, he told me to trust him and see what Austin Peay had to offer.”
In addition to Austin Peay and the Mocs, Craig said he had offers from Tennessee Tech and Charleston Southern.
McCallie defensive back Nygel Edmonds just might have grabbed the largest piece of the signing pie Tuesday when he chose California-Berkeley of the Pac-12.
Edmonds, a safety, signed with the Bears and hopes for a freshman year similar to what former Notre Dame star Kareem Orr had at Arizona State. Orr was brilliant this past season, leading the country in interceptions and earning freshman All-America honors.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the prospects of playing college football at Cal,” Edmonds said. “There’s something about Cal that’s special. When I was out there it felt like home and place I will enjoy spending the next four years.”
Edmonds chose the Bears over Stanford, Ohio State, Notre Dame and UCLA.
Being a boarding student at McCallie – most of his family lives in Atlanta with some in Ohio – helped prepare Craig from spending most of the next four years on the West Coast.
He expects to play cornerback and some at safety in a league that is pass-happy.
“They throw it around quite a bit out there,” he said.
The Tornado’s Jay Roberts will attend and play football at Washington & Lee.
The Irish’s Ricky Ballard and Tyler Enos signed with Tennessee Tech, thus continuing an on-field bond that has lasted 10-plus years. And Robert Murphy chose Carson-Newman University.
All three were instrumental in leading Notre Dame to four straight playoff appearances, including reaching the semifinals the past two years, and posting a 40-13 record.
“I’m speechless,” Ballard said. “I’ve been dreaming about playing at the next level and waiting for this day a long time.”
Ballard expects to play a safety spot for the Golden Eagles.
“I’m blessed,” Enos said. “Ricky and I have been playing football together for about 10 years, since the third grade. Now, we’re going to have another four years together.”
Enos visited Tech this past weekend and committed to Satterfield on Sunday.
Murphy quickly noticed something to his liking on a visit to Carson-Newman.
“It’s a God-fearing campus,” he said. “The coaches are the same way. That was a priority when I went up to visit. I knew nothing about the school before going up there. People said it’s a small town and nothing to do. I’m going to focus on books, playing football and getting a great education.”
In other Irish signings, Annie Ripper, who was on crutches following ACL surgery, got a tennis grant to Centre College and James Teal got a soccer grant to Alabama-Birmingham.
Irish quarterback Alex Darras says he trying to decide between a preferred walk-on slot at Vanderbilt, a full-ride grant to Furman and he’s still considering the University of the South at Sewanee.
Baylor’s signing party was the day’s finale.
Two players – tight end Gage Upshaw and linebacker Ryan Parker – will get appointments to Air Force and Army, respectively. Cornerback Ulysses Strawter signed with Wofford of the Southern Conference.
Parker, who will play football and wrestle for the Cadets, follows in his uncle’s footsteps. Major Gen. George Harris (retired) was in the class of 1978 at West Point.
“He showed me all the opportunities – mainly the automatic job security – that go with attending Army post-college,” Parker said. “I’ve been up there twice, once when I was in the eighth grade to see them play Boston College and this year when they played Duke.”
Parker committed to Army when coaches made an in-home visit three weeks ago. He previously committed to Notre Dame as a preferred walk-on.
He had offers from Army football and wrestling.
“I said, ‘Let’s combine the two,’ ” he said.
It worked out just fine.
Upshaw weighed offers from Air Force, Tennessee State University and recently Austin Peay.
“Coach Healy is attacking Chattanooga strong,” he said.
Healy was Upshaw’s first contact since he committed to Air Force, but the coach wasn’t able to sway the Red Raiders’ decision and one visit to Colorado Springs iced the deal.
“In November, I watched Air Force play Army,” he said. “It’s a beautiful campus with a great atmosphere and something I had to be a part of, especially when you look at all the benefits.”
After sitting out his junior season, Upshaw is playing for coach Austin Clark’s basketball squad this season, but never seriously thought about hoops in college.
“I wasn’t quite the player my brother, Reggie, was coming out of Baylor,” he said. “That dream sailed a long time ago.”
Strawter, a safety who expects to play cornerback in college, had one football option – Wofford. He visited the campus and a day later committed to the Terriers.
“The campus reminds me a lot of Baylor,” he said. “They made me feel like I was already a part of the family. Going to the Southern Conference is going to be a great experience and I’ll have a chance to play against a bunch of friends. It’s going to be fun.”
Silverdale’s Josh Brady probably had the rarest of experiences Wednesday.
Brady is a long snapper and got a full football scholarship from Jacksonville (Ala.) State, a team that beat the Mocs twice this season and reached the national championship game.
“They told me they had never put a long snapper on full scholarship,” Brady said. “Just a handful of guys across the country have gotten full rides. I was blessed to get one.”
Brady was the right guy in the right place. The Gamecocks’ snapper this past season was a senior and a spot was open. He attended a one-day summer camp. Two hours into the camp, coach John Grass offered him.
“I went ahead and committed to them,” Brady said. “This whole journey has been insane. Having that weight off my shoulders, knowing my parents won’t have to pay for my college, there’s not a better feeling.”
Boyd-Buchanan tight end Jack Keebler is going to Tennessee-Chattanooga, choosing the Mocs over East Tennessee State, Davidson, Bucknell and Middle Tennessee State.
“Close proximity is nice,” he said. “I’ve seen a good many games at UTC over the years. I think I saw all but one home game this season. I’m going down there and do my best. Hopefully, I can get on the field my first year.”
East Ridge’s Jeremiah McKibben and Quasey Vinson, both linebackers, are head for the University of Cumberlands in Kentucky. With their help, the Pioneers win 12 straight games in 2015 before losing to Notre Dame in the Class 3A quarterfinals. On Tuesday, East Ridge coach Tracy Malone resigned.
“We talked about if Cumberlands offered us, we’d stick together,” Vinson said. “I think I talked Jeremiah into it and now our dream is coming true.”
Said McKibben, who transferred to East Ridge from Ooltewah his sophomore year, “I’ve never had to deal with something like this (recruiting). But I feel good about Cumberlands. We went up there in December. They have a competitive team, but we’ll have to work hard.”
Soddy-Daisy’s Grant Cordell signed with Tusculum and Jacob Lemons with Cumberlands.
Red Bank defensive back Will Davis has accepted a preferred walk-on offer from Austin Peay. The Lions’ Destein Henderson will attend Maryville, a Division III school, and play football for the Scots.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)
New Austin Peay State University coach Will Healy, formerly coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga, hit Chattanooga hard on Wednesday for outstanding prep football talent from Ooltewah and McCallie.
- Photo2 by Austin Peay Athletics