Timmy Jernigan had heard enough about Tennessee's football program that he decided to research the Volunteers for himself. Yet it wasn't until UT coach Derek Dooley made his in-home visit to see the dominating defensive tackle that Jernigan decided he needed to officially visit Rocky Top.
Now, after a weekend in Knoxville, Jernigan has more than ever to think about the Vols as he begins to sequester himself before making a final decision Wednesday on signing day. And Tennessee is in the mix largely because the impression Dooley made on Jernigan convinced the nation's second-ranked defensive tackle and No. 29 overall player, according to Rivals.com, to further explore UT.
"At first, I mean, like I liked Tennessee, but I don't know if I really want to go there. And then I told coach Dooley that I wasn't going to come (on a visit), and he asked if he could come down and visit me at my house," said the Lake City, Fla., (Columbia High School) standout. "I was like, 'Yeah, no problem with that.' So he flew in and we got to talking a little bit. First impressions, I got a great first impression of him so I was like, 'You know, maybe I should go take a visit and see what it's all about up there.' I got up here and it kind of blew me away. It was totally different than what I thought it would be. It was nice up here."
So what exactly did Jernigan take away from that recent in-home visit from Dooley?
"I mean a lot of guys like when they come to your home, they try to drill you, they talk to you for hours and hours and hours and just say the same stuff that you already heard before," he said. "Coach Dooley, in a sense, he said a lot of things that I'd heard before from other coaches, but you can tell when somebody is really sincere about it. You know, I can tell when somebody is just coming in lying or just trying to run game on me a little bit. But I could really tell, this dude he really cared about me and cared about my future. He's one of the few coaches that I could really say that about. That he really cared about me."
Jernigan clearly gave fond reviews of his trip to Knoxville, indicating it was better than expected. The muscular 6-foot-2, 275-pounder, who impressed onlookers earlier this month with his burst and ability to disrupt plays in San Antonio at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, was taken aback by the reception he received from Vols' fans. Some people lined up at the airport to greet him Friday night while others decorated 'The Rock' --- a campus icon --- with his name.
"The fan support here is … the fans here, everybody loves you. There's much love here. It's just real good people around the program," Jernigan said. "It was crazy, man (the airport greeting). It surprised me. I didn't really see that coming. When I was on my way to the stadium to eat, somebody was painting my name on 'The Rock.' So that kind of thrilled me.
"Yeah, maybe one or two spots (have had similar showings of support) but I got a good first impression on the school (UT)."
Jernigan candidly admitted it was a much different impression than what he had expected.
"I thought it would be laid-back, you know, not necessarily country and even some places where it's country it's still a great place. I just thought it would be a lot (more) laid-back," he said. "I didn't think the fan support, that the people were this into Tennessee football up here. When I got at the stadium and saw it, the people love you man, especially if you're an athlete and you play football here, the people love you. That's what really stood out to me."
The Vols stood out enough to him that they're now wedged firmly alongside Florida State and LSU as Jernigan's finalists.
"Ooh man, Florida State, LSU and Tennessee. You know, those three I'm really looking at the hardest," he said. "I'm just going to lay down the pros and cons of all three and just pray on it man, that's all I can do. Because I really feel like there isn't such a thing as a bad choice, and I feel like it's just finding the best choice. There isn't a bad choice with all these great universities if you go in and do what you're supposed to. It's just finding the best situation for you. That's what I'm really trying to do."
Tennessee's opportunity for early playing time is something that Jernigan noted.
"It's a lot to think about as far as opportunity to play. I feel like I'm going to get a good education anywhere I go. I feel like I'm going to play anywhere I go," said Jernigan. "It's just a matter of when I'm going to play wherever I do decide to go, but the opportunity to play here and the opportunity to be coached by coach Dooley and coach (Chuck) Smith is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Indeed, Jernigan has developed a strong bond with Smith.
"I did a lot of research on them. He told me a lot about himself, but I was like, 'I've got to see for myself,'" Jernigan said. "And everybody talked highly of him, so I think he's going to be a great coach."
Now Jernigan, who said he'll have a simple ceremony at his school without any other hats on the table except for his college choice, will begin to withdraw from the recruiting hysteria to hone in on his final decision.
"I'm going to make it Wednesday. I'm just ready to get it over with, but I'm not going to rush it," Jernigan explained. "I'm just going to sit down and evaluate every school that I've looked into. I've been to Michigan, Alabama, South Florida. I've been to every place that I've ever looked into. So now that I've seen it all, and I know what I want, it's just time to evaluate everything.
"I'm not going to have any hats. I'm not one of them dudes. I'm not a showboat. I'm just going to have a little ceremony, and I'm just going to do it like that. I'm not going to have any hats on the table. That's just not me. I'm going to spend time with my momma and my nephews and stuff, the ones who I love most. Tuesday I'll probably stay by myself. I probably won't be around anybody. I just need time to think and pray and sit on everything, because this decision is going to affect me for the rest of my life. It's not going to be four years. It's the rest of my life."
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