What a difference a year makes

Marvin Westwestwords

Background: Dinah Washington won a 1959 Grammy for her rendition of “What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours …”

Multiply a Dinah day by 365 and think what a difference a year can make.

 ***

One year ago today, Marquarius White was an extra small (5-9 1/2, 155) football player at Clay-Chalkville High School in Pinson, Alabama. He was a slot receiver preparing for a 15-0 state 6A championship season. He was destined to have a very good year, 49 receptions, 1,162 yards and 17 touchdowns.

On Aug. 20, a Friday night, he returned the opening kickoff for a TD against Shades Valley. Later, in a bigger game, when his team needed defensive help, White intercepted two passes. Expert evaluators overlooked size limitations and awarded him three and four stars as a college prospect.

Seven Southeastern Conference schools, including Alabama, offered scholarships. Rival recruiters did the unthinkable. They whispered that Tide talk might not be sincere. It was almost unfair but, true enough, some coaches didn’t really believe White was big enough for the big league.

Georgia and Auburn believed. Tennessee was absolutely convinced. The Vols beat very aggressive Louisville for his signature.

A lot has changed in a year. White is now competing against genuine men. He has grown part of an inch and gained three or four pounds. On the Tennessee roster, he is no longer Marquarius White. His colorful nickname is now official.

Everybody has had their say on how he became Squirrel. Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh is now talking about mental makeup and skill set, and how he is trying to take over August.

“Squirrel, in so many ways, is mature beyond his years. He was exciting to see in spring practice.”

Josh Heupel said “He’s truly fearless.”

Teammates are in awe of his speed. It is measurable. He was second in the 100 and 200 in the state track meet.

“Squirrel is — whoosh,” Hendon Hooker said. “It’s like he has jetpacks on his feet.”

Could be Squirrel is the fleet force behind ticket sales, at discounted prices.

 ***

What a difference a year made in Juwan Mitchell’s migratory football career. Tennessee was the fifth stop in the highly regarded linebacker’s adventure. As usual, he was confident. Others were optimistic.

He had been the main man in the middle at Texas. He led the team in tackles. He looked like a solution to a Volunteer problem. He started one game, suffered a recurrence of a shoulder injury, tried to play in two other games, made one solo tackle, had surgery and watched a lot of practice.

There was talk that Juwan would go away but he didn’t. Hope lives on. Tennessee has not filled the linebacker void (Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, etc.) created by the Jeremy Pruitt crash and burn.

Mitchell has followed football to some interesting places. In the beginning, Newark, New Jersey, was home. He played in New Monmouth. He commuted to New Berlin (New York) Milford Academy. He signed with Rutgers but landed at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas. After that, he committed to Minnesota but flipped to Texas.

He was said to be one of the best defensive Longhorns. He was uncomfortable with the culture. He was in and out and in the transfer portal. He considered Miami. Tennessee felt like a fit.

Mitchell has NFL size (6-1, 230), temperament and aspirations. This might be the year.

 ***

What a difference 365 days made in Joe Milton’s life.

One year ago, Heupel’s hand-picked transfer quarterback from Michigan was preparing for stardom at a very fast pace.

He looked like a pro tight end, 6-5 and 245. He was and is very athletic. His arm strength allowed him to make throws most quarterbacks can’t. His throwing motion appeared almost effortless, just a flick of his wrist.

Milton was Tennessee’s best quarterback last August. He earned the starting job against Bowling Green. A problem emerged. He was too often wild high. Passes he hit in practice he missed when they mattered more.

Milton suffered an injury. Hendon Hooker was dispatched as a replacement. He excelled and kept the job.

The situation was reversed for a few minutes in mid-October, during the Ole Miss game. Hooker was hurt. Milton stepped in and led the Vols in the right direction. He threw a ball within an inch or so of a winning touchdown.

Time was running short. Seconds remained. The Vols were at the Ole Miss 21, trailing by five. Little children knew the last play had to be a throw to the end zone. Milton looked, scrambled and gracefully stepped out of bounds at the 8. He stopped the clock as time ran out.

Overthrows and a terrible decision at the worst time are what we most vividly remember about Joe Milton. I thought it would be his going-away play.

Joe didn’t go. He refused to quit. He did the opposite. He worked to improve. He was going to be ready if needed again. He helped Hooker. They became closer friends. They became roommates. They spent many overtime hours analyzing video.

Joe Milton did everything he could to be a good teammate. I and others noticed.

No surprise that he is the No. 2 quarterback. Don’t be shocked if younger, more famous quarterbacks (Tayven Jackson, Nico Iamaleava, etc.) are looking up to him next August. Two years combined with a great attitude really can make a difference.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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