By Kelly Hodge
The depth of football talent at Science Hill became more apparent last week.
Five Hilltoppers signed national letters of intent to continue their football careers in college. The group included quarterback Malik McGue (Army), offensive tackle Malcolm White (Chattanooga), safety Mikey White (Western Carolina), kicker Alex Rinella (Western Kentucky) and tight end Bailey Feathers (Carson-Newman).
Coach Stacy Carter expected Trey Sutton and Dylan Miles to also accept scholarship offers in the coming days. That would mean a quarter of the team’s 28 departing seniors will be playing college football somewhere in the fall.
“We want to have a program where kids get those opportunities,” said Carter, whose team won 11 games last season and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs. “For five to sign on national signing day, that has never happened for us here before.
I’m very proud of this bunch.”
Carter and his colleagues in the area certainly have their work cut out trying to change perceptions with college coaches.
“Football recruiting is a very competitive business, and it’s really hard in East Tennessee because we’re not a hotbed, for sure,” he said. “We have some great players come out of here, but there’s just not a whole lot of recruiting. We hope that over time, with the kind of kids we had sign this year, that will change.”
McGue proved to be one of the most exciting players ever at Science Hill in his two seasons as the starting quarterback.
Possessing great feet and vision, he rang up 7,000 all-purpose yards and 45 touchdowns in his career.
But at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, he was recruited almost exclusively as a slot receiver.
McGue will apparently get a chance to play quarterback at West Point.
“They think he can help them there, and that was the big thing for him,” said Carter. “They don’t discriminate against height. It’s going to be a new world for him.”
Malcolm White stood out in every huddle at Science Hill, but he’s still a work in progress physically. Chattanooga, which has designs on an FCS championship, will end up with a far different player down the road than it’s signing now, Carter says.
“All these D1 schools were really interested in Malcolm, but they kept thinking he’s a little underdeveloped now,” he said.
“He’s 6-7 and a skinny 270. When he gets in the weight room and matures out, who knows? This is a kid who may play football for a long time.”
The learning curve may be different for Mikey White. Carter thinks he may find his way into the secondary at Western Carolina very soon.
“I don’t think they want to redshirt him,” he said. “They have about everybody back on defense, but they’re short a safety. Mikey is a physical kid, about 6-3, and he’s long, Richard Sherman-type long. They think he can be a great player.”
Western Kentucky will be getting the area’s best kicker. Rinella boomed 69 of his 95 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks last season and also converted 80 of 82 extra-point tries.
“His kicking has really been a luxury for us,” said Carter. “You talk about somebody that’s going to be missed, it’s Alex.”
As for Feathers, he’s an intriguing recruit for the Carson-Newman coaching staff. At 6-5 and 250, he’s an outstanding all-around athlete who had been focused on baseball and didn’t come out for football until his senior season.
Feathers played mostly tight end and defensive end for the ‘Toppers.
“I hate that we just got him out,” said Carter. “He’s 6-5 and has great feet. They want him on the offensive line at Carson-Newman, and I think he’ll carry the weight easily. They’re really getting a steal all around, because he’s a great student and person, too. Just a huge upside.”
Carter said ETSU was heavily involved in recruiting almost all of the players, and he’s a bit surprised none of them decided to play for the fledgling hometown program.
“I think all of them gave East Tennessee State a serious look,” said Carter. “They just did what they felt was best for them and their families.
“UT-Chattanooga is already in the top 10 in FCS, and that was attractive for Malcolm. Western finished second in the Southern Conference and gave Mikey a full scholarship. For Malik, it was probably West Point or ETSU. So every situation is unique.”
The coach said his advice to the departing players is fairly simple.
“The first thing you tell them is that everything is so competitive, just to get into school. You have to go establish relationships again – nobody is there to protect you – and you have to grow up fast.
“As far as football, there are great players at every level. You watch the professional level, there are D2 and FCS kids all over. So there are opportunities everywhere if you really work hard and apply yourself.”