KNOXVILLE – When fall camp opens Friday afternoon, the sound of “down, set, hut” will be in the air around Tennessee’s practice facilities.
Perhaps none of the 100-plus Vols who will be on the field have taken a more interesting path to get there than incoming tight end Woody Quinn, who is more used to “bump, set, spike.”
The former college volleyball player and junior college transfer now stands poised to compete for playing time in the SEC.
“Woody’s got a great story, he really does,” tight ends coach Mark Elder said on signing day of 2013. “A guy that played high school football early in his career and then really started going down the path of volleyball because he was a national recruit – a big-time guy for volleyball and went that direction, but missed football.
“We watched his film and really loved it. When we found out that it was the first time that he played football in five years, it was a no-brainer to think that this guy who is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds and hadn’t had shoulder pads on in five years – it was remarkable.”
Indeed, it has been a remarkable journey for Quinn, who begins camp listed third on the depth chart at tight end behind Brendan Downs and Joseph Ayres. The Dana Point, Calif., native used his 6-6 frame to pop on to the volleyball recruiting scene on the West Coast – a men’s sport much more popular in that region than in the football-saturated South.
He signed on to play volleyball with Pepperdine, a five-time national championship program, but after redshirting as a freshman, he moved on to California Baptist in search of more playing time.
His college volleyball career progressed, but the itch to return to football remained. It was a constant battle he faced as high school ended and college began. Football coaches continued to pursue him, but his volleyball career stayed his priority.
That desire to stick with volleyball began to crumble as his college career continued, though.
“It was hard for me to watch football thinking that I could do that,” Quinn said on Thursday, the day he reported for fall camp at UT. “My dad and I talked when we were paying tuition first semester of my sophomore year [of college] and he said ‘Hey, you don’t have to come back next semester, you can go play football, I know you want to.’ I kind of took a leap there. It was constant – the want to go back and play football.”
After finishing his volleyball season at Cal Baptist, he finally took the plunge. He enrolled at Santa Ana College in the fall of 2012 to play football for the first time since high school.
His numbers after one season at Santa Ana – 15 receptions for 252 yards and one touchdown – weren’t the eye-popping stats normally associated with SEC recruits. But recruiting services, and colleges nationally, began to see potential from a player who held his own in junior college despite not playing in years. His natural athleticism combined with his impressive size became a tantalizing combination.
After going most of the season unranked in the recruiting world, Quinn started getting stars from the recruiting sites – two stars from Rivals.com and three from 247Sports. Quinn credits UT’s former staff for identifying him and helping him land his first big-time offer.
“They saw my film and Coach [Josh] Conklin came out to see me and that was cool because he knew he probably wasn’t going to be there in two days and he said he was just doing it for me to hopefully put me in touch with the new staff,” Quinn said. “That was recruiting in its purest form I thought.”
His information was passed on to coach Butch Jones and his staff and upon their evaluation, they saw what first attracted UT’s former staff to Quinn. The Vols, looking for help to replace departed starter Mychal Rivera, extended an offer and in mid-January Quinn accepted it over others from Fresno State and San Diego State.
The incoming junior will have two seasons of collegiate eligibility remaining. He’ll battle with Downs, Ayres, redshirt freshman Justin Meredith and incoming freshman A.J. Branisel for playing time in 2013. Quinn cites his natural athleticism and his hands as his strengths, but stopped short of labeling himself as a pass-catching tight end or a run-blocking one. He wants to be known for his all-around game.
“I feel like I measure up,” he said. “We’re going to find out here pretty soon. … Getting here was just a small part of my goal. My dream is to do really well and to go beyond.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga