Editor’s note: The Tennessee coaching staff prohibits true freshmen from speaking with the media. Blount Today was unable to have any contact with former Maryville High star Aaron Douglas during a visit to Volunteer practice last week.
Knoxville – Is this the weekend Brandon Warren is unleashed?
Is this the game where Tyler Maples finally gets a shot?
For similar reasons, the two former Blount County prep stars would like nothing better when the University of Tennessee hosts Florida in an all-important Southeastern Conference showdown Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Kickoff (WVLT TV) is 3:30 p.m.
After going without a reception in the opener at UCLA, Warren, a former Alcoa High School star, caught his first pass as a Volunteer in Tennessee’s 35-3 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham last weekend. The 6-yard catch brought the Neyland Stadium crowd storming to its feet.
“The whole stadium!” Deidre Warren said. “Oh, my God! It was awesome. They know his struggle, and they love him. That little 6-yard pass … everybody stood up in the stadium. I couldn’t believe it.”
Neither could Brandon Warren.
“It’s like another chance to do what I love to do, which is to play ball,” he said. “The Lord’s been good.”
Later in the second half, the sophomore Tennessee tight end latched onto a pass he could run with, shook a defender and raced upfield for a 42-yard gain.
Few were cheering louder on a sweltering afternoon than the former Rebel star Maples. The redshirt freshman and former Maryville burner has yet to play in his first game as a Volunteer. He wants to badly.
“Anybody, when they get to this level, if you’re not playing, it’s not good,” Maples said.
For now, there’s the waiting. It’s for that very reason Warren’s home debut drew such a response.
After securing Mr. Football honors his senior year at Alcoa in 2005, Warren was one of the nation’s most coveted prospects. He had his pick of colleges.
When the former Tornado revealed on a local sports talk show he was choosing Florida State over hometown Tennessee, the backlash was brutal. It didn’t help when Warren went on to win freshman All-American honors as a Seminole. When he left Tallahassee after a semester with hopes of transferring to Tennessee, the ugly divorce with the Seminoles, along with the fight to regain his eligibility, led to a long, dark year Warren said changed his life.
“It’s not that I thought about giving up,” he said, “but I did think, ‘What if?’”
The darkest moment during a year-long stay at Pellissippi State Technical Community College came during midterms his first semester. In a class he badly needed in order to be able to enroll at Tennessee, he was coming up short. There wouldn’t be another chance.
“That semester woke me up,” Warren said. “That night, I had a talk with my grandmother and my mother, and they told me, ‘You don’t have that many more chances.’”
Warren had little trouble from that point forward, enrolling at Tennessee for the summer term. Appeals to have his eligibility restored were finally granted by the NCAA and SEC at the 11th hour, freeing Warren to play in the Vol opener.
“Amazing,” he said. “I just felt a rush of joy.”
More importantly, the year spent wondering when, and if, he would play again altered his outlook. It was no longer just football.
“This is the only way I can better myself,” he said, “by going to school and getting an education.”
Perseverance worked for Warren. It will be no different for him, Maples said.
There were few better than the former Rebel his senior year at Maryville two years ago. Like Warren the year before, he would be named the state’s Mr. Football. By the close of his Maryville career, he owned five school records for receiving. Named to at least one All-American list, he’d absolutely done it all.
Now, on a Tennessee depth chart bursting with high school receiving stars, he waits. He waits, and he gets better.
The 4.39 speedster carried 175 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame his senior year at Maryville. Fit and fast after the redshirt year, Maples has muscled up to 190 as a Vol.
His hands are as good as ever, so much so many of his peers in the Tennessee receiving corps rate Maples no lower than second on their mock depth charts. That withstanding, the former Rebel said he’s content to wait his turn behind the veterans.
“They’ve been here,” he said. “They’ve earned their spot. I could have gone to another SEC school and played earlier. Who knows?
“These are guys who’ve been here and done it. They’re going to play.”
While he waits, Maples said he relies on the one thing he’s always found most enduring: his faith.
“I have a very strong Christian mother who brought me up right,” he said. “That helps in all aspects of life, sports, religion, whatever.”
They’re comforting words, Kathy Maples, Tyler’s mother, said, but it’s still frustrating.
“I try to encourage him by telling him good things come to good people,” she said, “and I’m a firm believer in that because of my faith. If God wants him to play, he’s going to play.”
Maples waited patiently his first two seasons at Maryville. The end result proved a masterwork, with Maples eclipsing all but a handful of the school’s receiving marks. Rebel coach George Quarles has no doubt Maples can duplicate the uprising at Tennessee.
“I think if they’ll give him a shot, he’ll take advantage of it,” Quarles said. “They’ll have to play him (then). When I’ve talked to him, he’s been very positive. He’s been willing to work.”
The thing Deidre Warren found most enjoyable last Saturday took place well after the game beneath the stadium. Brandon, delayed by numerous interviews, finally made his way from the locker room. Hanging loosely at his side was a bag of dirty laundry.
“We just hugged him,” Deidre said. “He said, ‘Here, mom. Here are my clothes. Do something with them.’”
With that, Deidre let out a hearty laugh. Her son was home.