Q & A With Tommy Thigpen
Amidst a program trying to rebuild, Tommy Thigpen has far more to work with than most of his fellow Tennessee coaches.
The linebacker coach has arguably the best player on Tennessee’s team, junior A.J. Johnson, as well as three seniors and two juniors that will battle for playing time this fall. Clearly, Thigpen has been fortunate by landing at Tennessee after four seasons at Auburn, three at North Carolina and two at Illinois. The roster is stacked in his favor.
Yet Thigpen has been better known recently for his recruiting. Thigpen universally ranks as one of the top recruiters in the nation based on the current crop of commitments he has assembled for UT’s 2014 class.
Here is a recent conversation with the ace recruiter who has some aces up his sleeve:
What are your thoughts on some of the early success you’ve had at Tennessee?
“It’s not me. It’s working for a great organization. I think the guy I work for is the best in the business with his energy. Coach Butch Jones brings a whole new energy to the game. Best guy I’ve ever worked for. Knoxville is a great sale. He said it best: ‘All we got to do, Thig, is get them on campus and sell a great product.’ With the product that Butch Jones is selling people are enthusiastic about it.”
Prospects have told me you’re funny and that you have a good sense of humor. How much does that help in recruiting?
“You try to make somebody remember your name. That’s the whole deal. Butch is always telling us to make sure these kids know who you are. What’s going to be different when they go visit Vanderbilt, go visit Georgia? When you’re talking to a kid, you ask ‘Who is that coach at Vanderbilt that’s recruiting you?’ If they can’t say that guy’s first name then you know you have an edge. To get in with laughter and comedy, that at least makes sure somebody remembers your name.”
What are the areas you primarily focus on in recruiting?
“Nashville is my main, primary area and South Florida and part of Atlanta. Then I’ll go up to North Carolina and the D.C. and Maryland area, as well as Alabama. It’s kind of all over the place but the main part is Nashville. For us to be successful, we have to win the Nashville battles.”
How much have you seen the amount of talent grow in the Nashville area during your career?
“My first job was at Tennessee State. The Nashville area, there really weren’t that many players coming out of there [then]. You had good players but not dynamic players. The economy in Nashville is really good. You have some other states that are really struggling [economically]. You see a lot of people moving there for better opportunities socially and economically.
“The dynamic of the playing field changes. You get better football players. You get better products there. This year, there’s 10 to 12 really good players in that area. We see the same thing for next year as well. We have to get the majority of our players in Nashville because that’s our recruiting base.”
How much has Vanderbilt’s success changed recruiting in Nashville?
[Vandy head coach] James Franklin has done a great job. He brings a whole new energy. He has a lot of confidence. He believes in his product and he does it with conviction…I tell you he’s a force to reckon with because they’re right there. That’s a huge advantage when you’ve got a guy with that kind of energy that people like to be around. He sells it and he does a great job of selling the city of Nashville better than anything.”
How good can middle linebacker A.J. Johnson be?
“As good as he wants to be. In spring time, we really worked on his hands and his eye discipline and what he’s looking for in coverage. He’s the kind of linebacker you look for. He’s 6-foot-3 1/2 and 240 pounds. He brings a whole different energy. For a big man, he chases the ball as good as anybody. He’s relentless. That’s probably the best word to describe him. Even when he makes a mistake on the field, he does it with such conviction that when he calls it wrong, everybody just believes he’s calling it right.
“Our team looks to him as a leader. I challenge him all the time. You’ve got to bust your butt everyday and on every down. You’ve also got to come into the film room and study all the time. He made a lot of tackles. My challenge to him is make some sacks, make some interceptions, gets some tackles for losses, cause some fumbles. He’s been making a lot of tackles…You can be making 100 tackles 45-yards down the field and you’re on the field all day long. Our thing is to try to make more impact plays with A.J. and make sure he’s durable for the whole season.”
Can strongside linebacker Curt Maggit be the same player he was this year before suffering an ACL injury last season?
“Back when I was playing, the ACL was almost a career-ending injury. Now, the ACL is almost no different than a high ankle sprain. Those kids can come back after six or seven months with the medicine and rehab that they have now.
“I tell you, I love that kid’s energy…He’s really a good student in football. He asks the right questions. You can always tell when a guy is really serious about football. Once in a while when I walk past the meeting room, you can tell who your football junkies are. You’ve got guys that want to come in and watch tape when everybody is around. Then you’ve got guys that want to come in and study when nobody is around. There’s been a number of times I’ve seen him by himself with the clicker.
“As far as his rehab, I think he’s probably about 90-percent. Once he starts getting more contact, he’ll get more and more confident on it. The kid brings a whole different approach to the game.”
How do you see the weakside linebacker position shaking out?
“Dontavis Sapp probably had the best spring out of all those guys. He really made an impact in the spring. He’s just like Maggit, a really, really serious kid when it comes to football. He has a lot of pride. He’s a really smart, intelligent football player.
“We’ve probably got one of the oldest group of linebackers in the country and a lot of experience with those guys. They bring a different maturity. Probably one of the most mature groups I’ve had since I’ve been coaching. I love how they ask great questions when they’re on the field. They push each other.
“I think Dontavis Sapp is going to be an impact guy and I think Christian Harris has come a long way. He’s big. His body has changed. He’s 235 pounds. He runs well. He’s gotten stronger.”