Zach Stewart received a scholarship offer from Tennessee earlier this year. He made several trips to Knoxville to see the Volunteers practice and to get a sense of things. After hearing what he needed to hear and seeing what he needed to see, the Coalfield (Tenn.) High School offensive lineman verbally committed to the Big Orange on Thursday afternoon during another trip to campus.
"We're very excited," Stewart said on behalf of himself and his family. "It's a big deal. It's big for me and my family, definitely."
Players sometimes liken coaches they admire to father figures, older brothers or uncles. That family atmosphere that Jones & Co. are creating on The Hill are what tugged at Stewart's heart and pushed him to go ahead and pull the trigger even with well over two years of high school remaining.
"They treat you like your family," the Class of 2015 member said. "They'll shoot you straight. They've got your back at the end of the day. That's what I wanted to be around, and I knew that's where I wanted to be."
Even in the middle of 15 spring practices, the Vol coaches split off from Haslam Field and meeting rooms to illustrate to recruits like the all-state star their importance to the future of UT football and the way they treat each other.
"A lot of talking to coach Mahoney (gave him that feeling)," Stewart told InsideTennessee. "Coach Mahoney, here's one example, I was at practice one day and he came down to speak to my family. Then, he said, ''I've got to go. I've got to go eat with my players and talk to my boys.' They all talk about how the door is always open if they want to come in and talk. They treat you like family. Coach Jones said that I was one of them now, and I can count on him for anything and I was family from now on."
Few Big Orange targets have been around Haslam Field and the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center this spring as much as Stewart given his interest and proximity to campus. He made Thursday's visit special for head coach Butch Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney.
"I told coach Mahoney in the office. He was really excited. He went down and told coach Jones in his office. He was real excited too. Then, the whole coaching staff came and spoke to me right as we were leaving coach Jones' office," the pledge said.
|Offensive line coach Don Mahoney (pictured) played an immense role in getting Stewart to declare for Tennessee.|
Sanders, who committed almost a month before his junior season, made numerous unofficial visits to Rocky Top to help sell the program to other possible Vol teammates. Wharton lives further west of Knoxville but has utilized social media to the fullest extent in attempt to get other 2014s to join him.
Stewart, although he's an understandably more shy student-athlete, will have even more ample opportunities to help show Tennessee targets why they should be Volunteers with his declaration coming more than four months before his junior season and his residing roughly 35 miles from Neyland Stadium.
The road grader gets started both as a supporter of the current team and as an ambassador for coach Jones' 2015 class with the Orange & White game in Knoxville on Saturday.
"I've seen them compete, and I've seen them work hard," Stewart said. "It's going to be out here for a great atmosphere. It sounds like there's going to be a lot of people there and a lot of stuff going on. It's going to be a great time for the football team."
In 2012, the 6-foot-4, 298-pounder helped pave the way for the Yellow Jackets to boast a near-2,000-yard runner and contributed 117 tackles and 14 sacks defensively. He was named Tennessee Sports Writers Association first-team All-State as a D-lineman his sophomore season.
Coalfield eliminated Cloudland and Greenback in the TSSAA Class 1A state playoffs before falling to eventual champion Gordonsville 39-15 in the semifinals.