KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ja’Quain Blakely set a number of goals for himself at Tennessee, and winning a national championship is at the top of the list.
But first things first. The true freshman from Moultrie, Ga., needs to get completely healthy before he can find his way onto the football field this fall.
“He has been very eager, demonstrated a high football intellect and, obviously, comes from a very successful program,” said Bob Shoop, the Vols first-year defensive coordinator. “He’s coming off an injury, and it will be determined what he can do in camp and into the fall.
“He’s got great leadership qualities, and I think he has a bright future.”
Blakely, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker, drew Tennessee’s interest for his instincts and hitting ability with Colquitt County’s national championship program.
But in his mind, Blakely made it clear in his final interview before reporting to the team this spring that there wasn’t enough respect.
Even though Florida offered Blakely a scholarship, something about the Gators and some Sunshine State prospects rubbed him the wrong way on his visit to Gainesville.
“I didn’t feel right on that (Florida) visit,” Blakely said. “The Florida guys … they get everything handed to them, and they don’t have to earn it like we do in south Georgia.
“When you’re from Georgia, you hear how Florida guys think they are the best.”
University of Tennessee football players hear that frequently too, as the Gators have not been shy about discussing their 11 consecutive wins in the series during this offseason.
The Vols who attended SEC Media Days earlier this month in Birmingham, Ala., made it a point not to get caught up in Florida’s trash talk.
Blakely clearly has passion for the rivalry, too.
But he’ll need to stay focused on getting healthy if he’s to play any sort of special teams role in this season’s Sept. 24 clash at Neyland Stadium.
Blakely sustained a shoulder injury the fifth game of his junior season and played the entire season with it before undergoing surgery. He had another procedure performed following his senior season, last December.
“I think the injury slowed him a little,” Shoop said, “but he’s getting in better physical condition all the time.”
Blakely said he can’t wait to play for Shoop.
“I want to get on the field my freshman year, just to touch the field — special teams or in the rotation, that’s my No. 1 goal for this season,” Blakely said. “Coach Shoop called me the third day after he was hired, and he told me all his expectations and goals, as far as in me as a player and with our whole defensive unit.
“He’s just a great guy with concepts and strategies you know will pay off.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee athletics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and is based in Knoxville.