CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In its outward appearance, recruiting is a very surface-level field.
A recruit gets scouted, then comes an offer and, if the recruit is interested, a visit. There are 7-on-7 camps and a whole lot of other showcases, all for recruits to try to get exposure and notoriety. Then they do their best job to get behind a recorder or on their cell phones and relay how a visit went and where they stand with this school or that school.
But there’s a deeper level to it than that. These are 17- and 18-year-old kids, sometimes younger, trying to make an incredibly important decision. Views can change from one week to the next and there’s the constant threat of potentially making a wrong decision. For Tennessee 4-star commit Brendon Harris, that fear was real during the early portion of his recruiting process.
“It’s kind of an emotional process,” Harris said. “I remember when I first started getting recruited, I think I got like 10 offers, I kept saying, ‘I have no idea where I want to go to school.’ And people may not know it, but you think about this every day. Every day I thought about where I wanted to go to school. Visiting different schools, your opinion changes and your emotion changes and talking to your friends, your family, outside influences. It’s just a thing that you don’t want to make the wrong decision.”
The Chattanooga, Tenn. product certainly had a lot of options when he ultimately decided to commit to Tennessee in May — a total of 18 offers. While the fear of making the wrong decision weighed on Harris, there wasn’t a player better suited to handle it than Harris.
“Brendon’s been great,” Baylor School head football coach Phil Massey said. “He’s stayed grounded. I think that’s a tribute to his family and he’s stayed really a kid that we’ve talked to along the way and just told him still what the demands were and what the expectations were of him this year as a rising senior with all this recruiting going on. But he’s stayed the same kid so he’s handled it from a mature wise, he’s handled it very, very well.”
Harris took that fear of making the wrong decision and used it to guide him. He took his time and visited quite a few major schools including Florida, Georgia and Clemson, and visited Tennessee multiple times before ultimately making his announcement.
So when Harris made his decision, he was sure it was the right one.
“Me choosing Tennessee, there’s no way that could’ve been the wrong decision,” Harris said. “There’s no possible way.”
The Vols’ next big thing at safety
Massey has been the head coach at the Baylor School for more than a decade. In that time, he’s sent a few of his players to colleges around the country, including Tennessee linebacker Colton Jumper.
But one thing that has puzzled him about recruiting over that span is how scouts often base decisions off of the measurables and not what makes up their heart and character.
“I think Brendon’s a kid that has those intangibles,” Massey said. “We talk about character, we talk about motivation, we talk about attitude, work ethic, those things, he has all those.”
And while those things certainly fit in with the Butch Jones “5-star hearts” and “champions of life” narratives that caught so much flack, the Vols are getting a heck of a football player in the nation’s No. 18 safety and No. 224 overall player.
“I think now more than ever, recruiting is physical, how can a kid get in and step in and handle it right now,” Massey said. “From that perspective, he has all of the physical tools and that’s probably what has set him apart even from other kids that are being recruited. The tools that he has right now, just physically, just his strength, his speed, his height, his weight, all those types of things that are tangible things that they can see.”
At just a tick under 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Harris possesses the speed, size and strength to be an elite college safety. While he’s always had the football intelligence to play at the next level, it was between his freshman and sophomore years of high school that the physical aspects came together for one of the Class of 2018’s top safeties.
“He always had really, he had good ball skills and he had good football intelligence but just seeing how he took to the weight room, how his strength and his speed, he could almost overnight seeing the improvement he was making there,” Massey said. “I think at that point probably between his freshman and sophomore year that we saw he could potentially be a kid that could continue playing in college after his high school career.”
While he’s by no means a finished product, Harris knows he’s going to a school that has produced plenty of NFL caliber players over the last decade, including Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry.
While he needs to work on the finer aspects of playing in the secondary, he has confidence that defensive backs coach Charlton Warren can help him get there.
“Especially coming out of high school and going to a college setting, they know things more than high school coaches know,” Harris said. “I think like backpedaling, footwork … just little technique skills that I would need to take with me to the next level to be an elite player.”
Ready to play
Before he made his commitment, Harris had the chance to go to Knoxville and watch one of the Vols’ spring practices.
That practice was among the most educational experiences of his recruiting process.
“Me going to see that practice lets me know, alright look, I’ve got to come in with this mentality that I’ve just got to go hard every play, even if I mess up, go 100 percent,” Harris said. “That’s what the coaches want to see, effort, effort and attitude. Have a good attitude, have good effort, come in ready.”
While he’s very aware of the string of good safeties that have come through Tennessee’s campus, including the two he got to see back in April — Nigel Warrior and Todd Kelly Jr. — Harris is also aware Kelly is a senior, and he wholeheartedly believes that as a true freshman, he has a shot at taking that spot.
“I definitely feel like I’m prepared,” Harris said. “Even if I’m not as prepared as I think I should be, I think Tennessee will put me through the program that will get me there.”
Even with his athleticism, that’s an ambitious goal given Harris doesn’t plan to enroll early and won’t have the head start that comes with going through spring practice and offseason conditioning from January to March.
However, those intangibles will give him a shot at stepping foot on that field once August, 2018 rolls around.
“Mentally, he’s got football smarts, he’s a very intelligent football player,” Massey said. “I think he can come in and I think from the very get-go when he steps foot on campus will be prepared physically and mentally for the game and to play at that level.”