While fans are still interested in quarterbacks …
The week before early signing day 2017, Tennessee chose California high school quarterback J.T. Shrout over Florida high school quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
Penix, from Dade City and Tampa, had been committed to the Butch Jones administration. He endured the coaching change and still wanted to play for Tennessee. He recalls twice being told the Volunteers still wanted him, by no less authorities than new athletics director Phillip Fulmer and new coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Michael and his mom were wrapping up travel plans for a mid-December just-in-time official visit to Knoxville when they were told not to bother.
Sorry about that.
Pruitt had just hired Tyson Helton, an assistant at Southern Cal, to be Tennessee quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. Helton wanted Shrout, from Santa Clarita, Calif., as a prospective quarterback of the future.
A few days later, after disappointment and anger subsided just a little bit, Penix landed on the rebound at Indiana.
Former Tennessee coaches Mike DeBord and Nick Sheridan were helping coach the Hoosiers. They knew all about Penix. They had been advocates when the Jones gang was seeking his services.
Sheridan said of course Indiana had wanted him but wouldn’t have had a chance except for the confusion in Knoxville.
This is ironic: Helton moved on after one season to become head coach at Western Kentucky. Pruitt was pleased. Sheridan moved up to offensive coordinator at Indiana.
Irony 2: Shrout, blessed with a strong arm, was 7-for-11 passing with one touchdown against South Carolina in 2019. He made less memorable appearances against Chattanooga, Alabama and Alabama-Birmingham.
Penix won the quarterback job at Indiana. He was twice Big 10 freshman of the week. He set a school record with 20 consecutive completions against Michigan State. He had three touchdowns passing. He added one as a runner.
Penix was the quarterback through six games. He completed 69 per cent. He got hurt in November and missed the shot he wanted, against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
He is on the current Maxwell Award watch list. He probably won’t win.
So far this season, Shrout has been in action for a minute or so. He would have been better off if he had remained in relative obscurity on the Tennessee bench. He was ushered into the Kentucky fray as a replacement for twice-intercepted Jarrett Guarantano. Shrout attempted one pass. It was intercepted.
Here is the ultimate irony: On Saturday past, when Shrout was watching Tennessee absorb the sledgehammer pounding from Alabama, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was making the plays in the controversial overtime victory over Penn State.
Penix threw for a touchdown and rushed for another. He ran for the game-tying and game-winning two-point conversions.
What was that? Thought I just heard somebody say “Oh my.”
Choosing one prep prospect over another is not new in college recruiting. It happens every year. Coaches work tirelessly to secure a pledge. If they later find what they consider a much better player at that position, they sometimes switch.
They try to do it tactfully. They call the original recruit less frequently, reduce enthusiasm, drop subtle hints. The star player begins to wonder what changed, finally figures it out and reopens his recruitment. More often than not, kind words are exchanged for public consumption.
Sometimes the separation is blunt.
Return with me now to 2008 and the dismissal of Fulmer as coach. He had a good class ticketed for Tennessee. Lane Kiffin, new sheriff in town, threw back commitments from quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Bryce Petty.
Boyd turned into a pretty good Clemson Tiger. He remains the school record-holder with 11,904 passing yards and 107 touchdowns.
I choose to remember a game from November 2012 against North Carolina State. Tajh broke the Atlantic Coast Conference record for most touchdowns – eight. He threw for five, ran for three and racked up 529 all-purpose yards.
Petty played at Baylor. He led the Bears to Big 12 titles in 2013 and 2014.
The previously mentioned Butch Jones, noted evaluator of prep talent, said out loud that he didn’t really want Trevor Lawrence. You’ve probably heard of Trevor.
Butch didn’t say his hair was too long. He said Trevor didn’t fit the Butch Jones system.
Trevor Lawrence was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. The family lived in Washington County before relocating to Cartersville, Ga. He grew up a fan of the Volunteers.
Lawrence chose Clemson. He has been doing OK. He may win a Heisman Trophy.
Butch is doing OK, too. He is only four months short of collecting the entire Tennessee settlement of $8,257,580 minus token donations from Alabama.
As for J.T. Shrout, the Vols’ redshirt sophomore, I’ll defer to the late Yogi Berra: “His future is still in front of him.”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org