McMINNVILLE, Tenn. — K’Rojhn (pronounced Kay-Ron) Calbert was South Carolina’s paid guest last October, on an official visit set up to persuade him to accept coach Will Muschamp’s scholarship offer.
But the 6-foot-6, 316-pound offensive tackle felt awkward on the drive to Columbia, and that feeling only got worse for him as kickoff approached for the Saturday night Gamecocks game he would attend.
“That whole feeling at South Carolina,” Calbert told SEC Country, “that didn’t feel like I was at home.”
Calbert said game day started with South Carolina coaches and players telling the recruits they were going to beat Tennessee that night.
“I was in the locker room, because Coach Muschamp said we’re not going to feed you any bull crap, what you see is what is is,” Calbert said. “I wasn’t scared in the sense for my life, but I was scared because there were a lot of things going on in that locker room, nothing illegal, just words being used, ‘We’re going to kill Tennessee.’
“Really, it was like a riot; it was, who was hungry enough to come out and take somebody’s head off, like literally, like they really wanted to kill Tennessee, like slaughter everybody,” Calbert said. “It was a savage mentality.”
Calbert said it’s something he will always remember and share with his new Tennessee teammates.
“I will make sure to make it personal,” he said.
Upset about upset
The Vols had won the previous three games in the series with the Gamecocks by three points or fewer, but the 2016 Tennessee team came limping into Williams-Brice Stadium, primed to be upset.
The Vols were missing six starters despite coming off a bye week after a loss to Alabama, and Calbert said he noticed the team was not engaged on the sideline — nothing like what he was seeing from the amped-up Gamecocks.
South Carolina won 24-21, as a last-second Tennessee field-goal attempt fell short.
“When I went to Tennessee and they won their games, I felt it was a win for me too, like I was already a part of the team,” Calbert said. “But when I went to South Carolina and they beat Tennessee, it hurt me, too. That’s when I knew Tennessee was the place I was going to be, because it bothered me.”
Calbert stopped in Knoxville on the way back from his South Carolina visit to see the Tennessee coaches. It just felt like the right thing to do, he said.
Calbert wasn’t on Tennessee’s recruiting radar until a few months before his senior season, when Brandon Thomas, his offensive line coach, convinced him to go to the Vols satellite camp at Tennessee State.
To that point, the only camp he had attended was at Tennessee Tech, and he was convinced that was where he would play football.
As big and athletic as Calbert was, he was under the radar after ACL injuries to his left knee his freshman and sophomore seasons, and sitting out football his junior year to get healthy enough to play basketball.
Thomas convinced him to return to football during the spring football session of his junior season.
Next, he had to convince Calbert that he could compete at the satellite camp in Nashville, where the state’s top competition awaited him, including 4-star standout defensive end Greg Emerson.
“On the way down there, I said to K’Rojhn, ‘Don’t be nervous, you’re fine, you’re as athletic as anyone that will be there,’ ” Thomas recalled saying. “It never dawned on me he hadn’t really played offensive tackle in a game.”
Thomas said then-Florida offensive line coach Mike Summers matched Calbert against Emerson.
“Summers tells K’Rojhn, ‘You’re gonna kick slide right here,’ “ Thomas said. “And K’Rojhn turned to me and said, ‘What’s a kick slide?’ “
The coaches tried to pull Calbert out of the drill, but Thomas insisted he could teach his player the technique quickly, and sure enough Calbert jumped back in the drill and held off Emerson.
“Pat Washington offered him on the spot,” Thomas said. “Florida came right behind with an offer.”
Washington, a former Vols receivers coach, made the offer for South Carolina in his capacity as tight ends coach.
However, Tennessee did not make an offer at that time.
Vols assistant coach Walt Wells liked what he saw from Calbert, but Don Mahoney was the offensive line coach and he was not as sure.
Calbert was 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds at that time, a project to be sure. In the weeks that followed the Tennessee State satellite camp, he attended other camps at Memphis, Georgia, Tennessee and in Michigan.
“Here I was thinking I wasn’t good enough, and I was going to Tennessee Tech, but Coach Thomas said I needed to open up my eyes, and he took me to that satellite camp and it went from there,” Calbert said. “From camp to camp, I picked up things, I got better at the camps, it was a huge transition learning to play offensive line.
“Football is about the only sport where you’ll play with your back to the ball. You have a sense where the ball is supposed to be, but you don’t know for sure, so it was difficult for me to pick up on the process, picking up stunts and reading defenses. Tennessee will fine tune me on all of that.”
Calbert points to Thomas and Wells as two of the men he trusts most in his life. He was raised primary by his grandmother after his parents split up and his mother moved to Kansas for work.
“Coach Thomas he took me under his wing … I needed somebody who would take me to these camps, and he was my coach, and he took time away from his family to be with me on the road,” Calbert said. “I’ve thought about that, there was time lost with his family to be with me, so I really appreciated his investment.
“Coach Thomas is like a father figure to me, and anything he asks me to do, I will do.”
Calbert feels a strong sense of loyalty to Wells, also, because of the honest nature of Tennessee’s new offensive line coach.
“Coach Wells never gave up on me, and I don’t think Tennessee was so sure about me because of my injuries early on,” Calbert said. “But Coach Wells told me that if he felt like I wouldn’t get an offer, it was just business, and he would suggest places I might want to go. I understood that, and I appreciated him being honest about everything.”
Thomas said that’s why Wells has such a strong relationship with high school coaches in middle Tennessee.
“Coach Wells told me after that first camp, ‘K’Rojhn is a good kid, I want him to succeed, if not with us, with someone else,’ “ Thomas said. “The holdup had been they wanted to see if he could physically endure the pounding his senior season.”
Calbert’s second surgery was on Jan. 16, 2015, and Calbert played two basketball seasons and his senior football season without any issues. Doctors at South Carolina and Tennessee examined him and deemed him fit.
When Tennessee coach Butch Jones reached out halfway through Calbert’s high school season, there was no doubt he was going to follow in the footsteps of his distant cousin, McMinnville’s Danny Martin, who lettered for the Vols in 1979 and 1980.
There was just one more person that needed to be sold on the deal.
“I get worried every time he plays, he’s the bigger kid, so everyone wants to go at him, whatever he’s playing,” said Willy Mae Martin, Calbert’s grandmother. “I know K’Rojhn has the love for football, but I wanted him to play basketball.”
Calbert knew that, and he didn’t want to disappoint his grandmother or make things harder on her than they were.
“I told her I knew football was my ticket out, so at the end of all this, this is how I’ll get an education, and one day if I’m good enough I can go to the NFL and give back to here,” Calbert said. “I could major in education, because my grandma molded me and she helped my three other cousins. She took care of my grandfather when he had Alzheimer’s, and she attended to her mother until she passed away at 98, and she took care of friends.
“My grandmother is my world, she was always out working trying to support us and put food on the table. She’s my real MVP.”
Willie Mae really didn’t have much interest in meeting the Tennessee football coaches when they came for a visit, because she wasn’t sure things could all be coming true for her grandson.
“Tennessee is beautiful, and I couldn’t have imagined that my little K’Rojhn would be able to play there,” she said. “The first time he came from there, he said, ‘Granny, Coach is coming over.’
“I thought I’m about to go to bed, but I got up … and at first I didn’t believe it, and I told him not to get too excited, but he has convinced me he’s ready.”
On May 29, Calbert reports with the remainder of the 2017 Tennessee signing class, in his No. 74 jersey ready to do what’s asked even if that means a likely redshirt this fall.
“They want me to be a part of it when we win championships, because we are going to win championships. I really believe that will happen, and we will be the Tennessee they used to be,” Calbert said referring to the Vols’ top-10 status and championship runs of the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Anything worth having does not come easy,” Calbert said. “I could have gone to a South Carolina or a Missouri … but knowing this year’s competition level is up, guys like Jashon Robertson love it, and you want to make yourself better even if you’re not the one on the field on game days.
“These are your brothers and your guys, and you have to be there to support them, and one day if you work hard, it’s your time to be out there.”
Calbert said he has been doing the workout program prescribed by new Vols strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson the past month. His weight went from 298 to 316, and his most recent bench press max was 385 pounds, coming sometime around his 18th birthday in April.
“I told K’Rojhn early on he had God’s favor, but no one could do anything about it but him,” Thomas said. “He’s worked his tail off, worked extremely hard to make this a reality, and now K’Rojhn has put himself and this place on the map.”