Coach Carl Torbush discusses his recruiting class. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
The rebuilding East Tennessee State football team laid its foundation Wednesday as national signing day brought the school its first group of players since the program was disbanded in 2003.
Coach Carl Torbush announced a class of 47 players during a ceremony in front of a capacity crowd of about 400 at the Millennium Centre ballroom.
The initial class is a mix of full- and partial-scholarship players along with walk-ons. Thirty-five are from Tennessee, and plenty of them are from the Tri-Cities area.
"We were able to meet needs at every position," Torbush said. "Of the 47 commitments we have coming to ETSU, we basically already have depth at every position and that's hard to do in one recruiting class. Every one of these young men had an opportunity to go somewhere else."
Science Hill has two players -- running back Chance Pierce and linebacker Gad Nagba -- as part of the first class. Also on the list are two from Elizabethton, defensive back Terrence Turner and linebacker Adam Mullins. David Crockett lineman Colt Jenkins and Tennessee High wide receiver Adam Mitchell join three Dobyns-Bennett players -- defensive back Seth Barger, running back/linebacker Zach Casey and lineman Trevor Gilliam -- as signees.
The cornerstone of this recruiting class could turn out to be Shawn Prevo, a running back from state power Maryville. The 6-foot, 180-pounder was a four-year starter and part of three state championship teams. He rushed for more than 2,600 yards combined in his last two seasons and was a finalist for the Mr. Football running back award in Tennessee.
Prevo reportedly drew some interest from Cincinnati, but ETSU was the only school he visited.
"He's a four-year starter at Maryville High School, so that speaks for itself," Torbush said of the program with 14 state championships. "He brings great durability because he didn't get hurt. He's got excellent speed and quickness. He's been extremely well coached by a lot of great coaches."
Prevo also brings something else to the ETSU program -- instant credibility.
"He's one that I think opened up a lot of eyes to the seriousness of East Tennessee State football," Bucs defensive coordinator Billy Taylor said. "Whenever people saw that Shawn Prevo committed to play at East Tennessee State, I think it showed all of those people that we're here for real and we're a program that will be reckoned with in the future."
Another gem could be Anderson County lineman Matthew Pyke, a 297-pounder, who visited some Southeastern Conference schools.
Torbush said the players began recruiting each other as they committed to the program. Bearden lineman Caleb Bartlett, Hardin Valley tight end Jack deFur and Knox Carter receiver Hank Black spent a lot of time recruiting other players through social media.
"Hank Black probably told me about as many prospects as I already knew about," Torbush said. "Once we got that first group here, they began to recruit for us and that was a great feeling."
The recruiting process had some interesting twists.
T.J. Morgan, a running back/wide receiver from Fort Myers, Fla., had never seen snow until his visit to Johnson City on one of the recent snowy days.
"He signed with us because he saw snow," Torbush said.
Another, 275-pound defensive lineman Paxston Robinson from West Chester, Ohio, fell ill shortly after his visit and spent the past 10 days in the hospital with pneumonia.
"He's the first player I've ever had sign scholarship papers in a hospital bed," Taylor said.
Since ETSU won't play official games until 2015 -- it will face off against club teams this fall -- each of the players signed this year will red-shirt their first season. The Bucs' first game is scheduled for Sept. 3, 2015 against Kennesaw State.
"It wasn't like we hid that from them," Torbush said. "They understand coming in it gives them a chance to get stronger and faster and get ahead in academics."
Torbush said the success rate of players who visited and signed was better than 90 percent.
This class was recruited and signed by a short-handed coaching staff. Taylor and assistant coach Teddy Gaines spent much of the past few months on the road.
"I'm so excited to be back at East Tennessee State, it didn't even feel like work," said Taylor, a former Bucs linebacker and team captain in the 1980s who also served as as assistant coach before the program was shut down.
Gaines said it didn't feel like two coaches doing the work of 10, which was how Torbush described the process.
"We just put our heads down and went after it," Gaines said. "We all tried to do the best we could do. I think for this first class to come together, we feel pretty good about it.
"This is a major step, getting our first class in. It starts with the players."