- Coach Rodney Saulsberry
Whitehaven Tigers fans watched their team come from behind and beat previously undefeated Ridgeway at Halle Stadium in East Memphis. The Tigers improved to 6-0 and would have an open week before meeting up with East. Let the extended celebration begin … for everyone except Whitehaven Head Coach Rodney Saulsberry.
He had film work to do, not just for East, but for his own players. Saulsberry can appreciate a win as much as the next coach, but he values getting his guys in college even more. He knows the dream of every kid playing football is to one day suit up with a big time college program.
But he is also well aware of the numbers. According to a 2013 report from the NCAA, 6.5 percent of all seniors playing high school football will play football in the NCAA.
He knows football is a game of inches, and not just on the field, but also a player’s measurements. Saulsberry offers Memphis Tigers defensive lineman Terry Redden as proof. Redden, a Whitehaven graduate, initially wanted to play at Tennessee. “UT didn’t offer him,” says Saulsberry. “Not because he wasn’t good, but because he measured at ‘6-3” instead of 6’-4. We can get kids stronger and faster. We can’t make them grow taller.”
Saulsberry can also help get them noticed. After a game he adds more “film” to a players’ portfolio. “Exposure,” he said. “The more people know the better (a players’) chances are.” So Saulsberry creates a prospect list for all of his seniors and for some of the younger players he puts together a future prospect list and sends them out to college coaches, members of the media, and anyone else he thinks could be of help. “We use email, Twitter, Facebook, the Hudl app to get the word out.”
Hudl, a video hosting service on the web that assists high school teams with collecting and analyzing game film, has made Saulsberry’s life easier. Saulsberry recalls the days of putting players highlights on tapes and DVDs. “It would take a month to get it all done on VHS,” said Saulsberry of the process of transferring a players’ highlights to tape. “On DVD it went from a month to about two or three weeks. Now with (Hudl) it almost instant.”
With the help of Hudl, Saulsberry has most of his college hopefuls’ midseason highlights completed. But that’s just the beginning. “The key is to talk to as many schools possible,” he added. “I communicate with everybody. Rivals.com, Scout.com, 247Sports, ESPN.”
Still it’s no walk in a park for the coach of a team with 121 players this season alone. The Tigers are full of juniors and seniors looking to extend their football careers. So Saulsberry will take any edge he can get in getting his players notice. “Sometimes it helps to have a big fish,” admitted Saulsberry. “Everyone wants to come out and see that player and are able to get a look at some of our other players in the process.” The most recent “catch,” was senior linebacker Josh McMillon who committed to Alabama.
Most players won’t be as coveted as McMillon, resulting in more work for Saulsberry and his support staff. His efforts bleed over into the summer where he will travel with players and get them into off season camps, even coming out of his own pocket to help with the expenses. “Pretty much on my own dime,” he said the trips. “But I get some help from the school, boosters, and parents. It’s a group effort.” It is also the type of loyalty to players that does not go unnoticed by parents. It was one of the reasons former Whitehaven offensive lineman Thomas Burton choose the school. Well more like the reason Burton’s mother Toleda selected it for him.
“He was assigned to Westwood,” Toleda Burton said of her son. “And we considered White Station and Central. But I respected Coach Saulsberry for his discipline, his commitment to his players. (Thomas Burton) needed a strong role male model at school. He also needed a coach with good character and not someone who’s always cursing the boys out, but someone positive.”
The move paid dividends for Burton, who is now a red-shirt freshman at Tennessee State University. Burton’s mother said she was always confident her son would play college football regardless, but with Saulsberry’s assistance his options were more plentiful.
Saulsberry’s commitment to her son not only impressed Toleda, his words touched her. “He gave us a quote for Thomas’ scholarship application,” she said. “He said Thomas was the epitome of what an offensive lineman should be. He (wrote) he would teach other players at the position based on how Thomas played it. And that meant a lot to me.”
According to Saulsberry, every year during the start of the high school football signing period about 10-15 of his players sign with some college football team, which is much higher than the national average for a single school.
Still, despite Saulsberry’s efforts, some players will not get offers from Division I schools. It’s a reality he shares with players upon entering the Whitehaven program. “On day one (of practice) I talk to the older guys with the younger guys present,” he said. “We are not looking to crush dreams but tell them about the real world.”
Saulsberry also shares with them other options: Division II, NAIA, or junior/community college. The perception of junior/community colleges is that they are easy to get into. Saulsberry disagrees. “Because there are so many guys around the country with academic issues looking to play at a junior college and only a few junior college programs available, the competition is tough. The level of skill is high.”
Some community colleges, like Coahoma in Clarksdale, Mississippi, will only allow a certain number of kids from out of state on the team. Because Tennessee doesn’t have junior college football teams, several of Saulsberry’s players have signed at relatively nearby Coahoma.
Saulsberry will leave no stone unturned. For guys who will not play football in college, but want to remain in the sport, he will assist them in finding off the field scholarships. “I have several guys who work as trainers or members of the equipment staff at schools,” said Saulsberry. “Those guys are on scholarships too, some at (Middle Tennessee), Ole Miss, and Memphis.”
And when all else fails, “There’s always the academic scholarship,” said Saulsberry. “We tell (players) to use football as a means to an end, to get an education. It’s more important for (coaches) that kids get a college degree than get to the NFL.”
You can follow Jamie Griffin on twitter @flyerpreps.