With former Bradley Central standouts Justin Houston and Patrick Benson already on the roster, Tusculum College inked a trio of Walker Valley players on National Signing Day, plus one each from Cleveland High and Bradley.
On Wednesday morning, Mustangs Justin and Jason Ware, plus Chazz Fulford, made their decisions official when they signed on the dotted line in the WVHS Media Center.
In the afternoon, Blue Raider CJ Bryant inked his papers in front of a group in the CHS Rainbow Room.
The signings had a family flavor as the Wares are twin brothers, while Fulford and Bryant are their cousins. They will be joining another cousin, Terrence Smith, a linebacker who played at Ooltewah and UT-Chattanooga before transferring, on the Pioneer roster.
Although he has already signed his papers and sent them in, Bradley Central’s DJ King will have an official signing ceremony this afternoon at the BCHS library.
With three players going on to play at the collegiate level, Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan cannot help but be proud.
“That’s a huge step for us to get some guys who were recognized for their hard work this year and over the past four years. As a coach, you’re always happy to see those guys who want to go on have the opportunity to do that.”
As they went over the paperwork, Ryan credited the three seniors as being a big part of the turnaround of the Mustang program, which went from 3-27 in the previous three years, including a 16-game losing streak, to a 5-5 mark last season and the school’s first TSSAA playoff berth since 2008.
“Justin Ware played running back for us and was our leading rusher this year. Jason Ware played defensive back for us, did a really good job and just kept getting better and better as the season went on. Chazz played linebacker for us and also a little bit of running back as well,” Ryan said of the trio.
A 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster, Justin Ware was second in the local area in rushing with 1,264 yards on 154 carries for an 8.2 average. He also caught a pair of passes for another 48 yards and found the end zone 15 times last season.
Jason Ware was in on 39 tackles in 2012, including 19 solos and one for lost yardage.
Fulford, who transferred in from North Carolina after the season began, made 14 solo tackles in 42 total hits, including one for loss and a takeaway. On the offensive side of the ball, the 6-foot, 190-pounder averaged 4.5 yards on 26 carries for 117 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
All three Mustangs are excited to have the opportunity to play football at the next level.
“(I’ll contribute) my best effort, do my best and help them get a championship,” Jason Ware said.
Justin Ware took the time to give thanks and reflect on what he can bring to Tusculum.
“First of all I give God thanks for giving me the ability to play and blessing me to go to the next level. I think it’s very exciting not only for me, but for my family, to see me go to college and play ball,” Justin explained. “I believe I bring my talent and my ability, not only on the field but off, to the school to help them look better and play better on the field.”
Fulford is happy to be playing with family and doesn’t expect college football to feel too different for him.
“I’m very excited, it will be just like high school football but a little bigger and faster,” Fulford joked. “I think I’ll be able to help them a lot — I play a little defense and offense. I just play hard.”
Ryan feels that the three Mustangs will be a great addition to Tusculum’s football roster.
“I think they’re all three great young men and understand what teamwork is all about. Justin can fly; he brings a lot of speed. Jason is just a hard worker, a good, steady guy who is going to bring a leadership role. Chazz just is a leader as well on the field. I think all three of those guys really have the potential to really step in and do a great job up there and bring a lot to the table to help Tusculum out.”
Bryant chose Tusculum over Lindsey Wilson College after considering the offers and seeking counsel from his mother.
“I liked both of the schools really well. Tusculum gave me a full ride, so I went with the full ride. It was a hard decision and I just talked it over with my mom and [saw] what she liked, because I didn’t want to go anywhere she didn’t like. If Mom’s happy, everyone is happy.”
A triple threat having scored on offense, defense and special teams, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Raider had more than 1,000 offensive yards. The running back was third in the area in rushing with 864 yards on 119 carries for a 7.3 ypg, plus caught 18 passes for another 147 (8.2 ypc).
Bryant found paydirt 15 times this past season, including a 95-yard kickoff return. On defense, he led the area with eight takeaways, including four interceptions, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
“I think I’ll do pretty good. Coach I (Iezzi) said I can help him out a lot. I’ve got my old middle school coach, Teddy Gaines, he decided to have me and said he’s looking forward to it and that I’d be a big part of Tusculum,” Bryant commented.
Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford has faith that Bryant will make him proud.
“I think that CJ’s got an opportunity to make an immediate impact. He’s just such a dynamic athlete, he can play both sides of the ball, and he can help them on special teams and all that kind of stuff. We’re excited CJ got an opportunity because he’s a heck of a player.”
While the majority of the attention on the Bradley offensive line this past season was on Mr. Tennessee Football Austin Sanders, who signed with Tennessee Wednesday, King stepped into the bookend tackle spot left by Benson.
“DJ is a very strong player and has great ability, but he missed a good part of the season due to an injury, so Im really glad to see him get this opportunity,” commented Bear head coach Damon Floyd.
King, who broke a foot during his junior season, missed several weeks after suffering a knee injury in the third game of last season at Soddy-Daisy.
At 6-foot-3, 280 pounds King started at right tackle and played some on the defensive line as well, as the Bears made their third straight trip to the TSSAA playoffs.
Along with Houston and Benson, Tusculum also has former Rhea County standout quarterback Cameron Tallent on its roster.
Benson and Tallent both redshirted last season, while Houston saw quite a bit of playing time at wide receiver. The former Bear burner was third on the team with 40 receptions for 393 yards (9.8 ypc) and scored four touchdowns. He also returned a half dozen kickoffs for 126 yards with a long return of 29 yards.
Located in Greeneville and established in 1794, Tusculum went 2-9 last season and plays in the South Atlantic Conference of the NCAA Division II.
The Pioneers compete in the same league as fellow Tennessee schools Carson-Newman and Lincoln Memorial, as well as North Carolina teams from Brevard, Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne, Wingate and Mars Hill, plus South Carolina squads at Newberry and Anderson.
Banner Assistant Sports Editor Joe Cannon contributed to this story.