Anybody who thinks Lane Kiffin’s showy antics don’t make a difference in recruiting wasn’t listening to these players after the game. They were clearly impressed by Kiffin’s idea to chopper to the game with right-hand recruiting man Ed Orgeron.
The two Tennessee coaches landed on a soccer field just west of James R. Hallford Stadium in a red helicopter as the
Star Bangled Banner played before the nationally-televised the M.L. King-Stephenson game. They flew out at the end of halftime.
“That really felt good to me because I talked to him for a minute on the phone,” said Mike Thornton, Stephenson’s star defensive tackle. “He told me he was going to come in and show off a little bit and, sure ‘nough, he did his thing. I saw him leave out and come in but that’s it.”
Stephenson led 7-0 at the half.
Thornton, considered the top uncommitted D-lineman in the state, hadn’t mentioned Tennessee among his favorites (Auburn, Georgia, Penn State) before Friday. Asked after the game if the Vols were now in it for him, Thornton said: “Oh, yeah; oh yeah. Hopefully I can get up there for a game soon.”
Thornton and MLK tailback Mack Brown seem to have been Kiffin’s main focus, though there were close to 20 D-1 prospects on the field at Hallford Stadim.
“Yeah, he was at my school earlier,” said Brown, the state’s top-ranked tailback and a Florida commitment. “I ran into him, shook his hand.”
Asked if Kiffin was trying to get him to flip on the Gators, Brown said politely, “Yes, sir.”
Brown was actually overshadowed in the game by Stephenson’s running back, Raymond Sanders. A longtime Kentucky commitment, the somewhat small but lightning quick Sanders had 135 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a spectacular 21-yard run that will surely make some highlight reels. He also had 30 yards on three receptions.
“I had to go out there and make a statement that I’m the best back in the state,” Sanders said. “Coach has been telling me that all week that I’m the best back in the state and to go out there and show it on national TV. So I just went out there and gave it my all and my offensive line played great.”
Brown actually played pretty well, too, considering he was competing on two sore hamstrings and behind an overmatched offensive line. He managed 103 yards on 19 carries despite Thornton blowing up the middle of the line of scrimmage on most every play.
“This was my last time to get to play Stephenson so I’m going to miss that opportunity. But it was a fun game,” Brown said. “They’re real aggressive up front. They’re as good as they say they are. They’re the No. 1 defense and they deserve it.”
“We were on a mission tonight, man,” said Thornton, who helped the Jaguars total five sacks. “Our whole game plan was to stop Mack Brown. We did what we were supposed to, made them change up their offense and it worked.”
Thornton got a lot of help, collapsing double teams in the middle of the line and creating openings for fellow D-linemen Doral White, Malcom Strong and Miles Ashmon.
“We’ve got a great defensive line,” Thornton said. “We’ve got the best defensive line in the state. And we’re going to go to state because of this line. I’m going to stop everything in the middle and they’re going to stop everything on the outside.”