KNOXVILLE – College football coaches often have to figuratively go the extra mile in recruiting, but Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni literally had to walk several extra miles to help land junior college wide receiver Von Pearson.
It’s a journey that started on the field in Knoxville.
Azzanni was well aware that the Vols would need help at receiver in the 2014 recruiting class. Seeing the product on the field as the 2013 season unfolded, however, made him realize how urgent that need would be.
“We got about halfway through the season and obviously we kind of knew what we had at every position, but when you start playing football – real games – you really realize, ‘hey, we really have a need here or there,’” said Azzanni, who also serves as UT’s recruiting coordinator. “Receiver was one of those needs. We needed some more playmakers out there and that was evident for everyone to see.”
That’s when the trip led to the film room. Just signing a few high school receivers wasn’t going to suffice this year. The Vols needed instant help for 2014. By mid-eason, the junior college ranks looked fairly picked over. UT had to get creative.
“So we really did some digging,” Azzanni said. “We needed some guys to come in and compete right now. So that’s where the junior college players come in to play. [Recruiting staff members] Bob Welton, Scott Altizer, Brandon Lawson and myself, we just started to dig and dig and dig. And all of a sudden we found [Pearson’s] film.”
His film showed glimpses of his potential, but perhaps his overall statistics told the story better of how productive he was. Pearson, who began the season relatively unknown in many recruiting circles, began to put up video-game like numbers at Feather River Community College, located in Northern California, just a little west of the Nevada-California border.
By the end of the season he led all junior college receivers with 1,598 yards, was second in catches with 90 and fourth with 12 touchdown receptions. A few offers began coming in. Recruiting services slowly began to notice, vaulting him in some cases from unranked to four-star status.
Azzanni needed to see for himself. And there was nothing that would stop him from going to find out if Pearson could provide the immediate help Tennessee needed.
Not even a huge chunk of ice.
That’s what hit Azzanni’s car as he made the drive from the airport in Reno, Nev., to see Pearson practice at Feather River. It tore the undercarriage of his car off, leaving him stranded where a tow truck couldn’t pick him up for at least seven hours, by his account.
“I didn't really have a coat so I just put my pullover and sneakers on, then started walking up the road to a little log cabin gas station,” Azzanni recalled. “I bought some soup I probably haven't had since I was 15 and some bungee cords to tie up into the engine and kept rolling. I was intent on getting to Von.”
Azzanni eventually made it and clearly liked what he saw – on the field and personally.
“And what do you know – he’s a pretty good player,” he said. “We went out to see him practice and fell in love with him as a kid. He’s humble, he’s hungry and he’ll do anything.”
Humble enough to call Azzanni on his way to enroll at Tennessee to ask what the best cleats he could buy for $42 would be. Azzanni, welcoming him to major college football, politely told him that the equipment would be taken care of once he got to campus. “We’ve got you covered,” he said.
But it may be Pearson who really has Tennessee covered for the next couple of years. If he can translate even a portion of his junior college production to the SEC, the Vols, which also added five-star receiver Josh Malone in addition to Vic Wharton and Neiko Creamer, will have one of the best groups of receivers in the league soon.
Throw in sophomore Marquez North, junior Pig Howard and a cast of other supporting receivers who got valuable experience last year and a weakness could soon turn into a strength.
Was Pearson worth the 2,400-mile journey with all of the trouble for Azzanni?
“He better be,” Azzanni said jokingly at UT’s post-signing day press conference.
There’s a good chance he will be. And that he'll be worth every mile of the trip.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga