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Gainesville players back away from Tennessee
Kiffin's departure leaves local athletes looking for new plans
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Lane Kiffin’s abrupt departure from the University of Tennessee sent shockwaves through college football, and the ripples from his decision are being felt locally as well.

News broke Tuesday night that Kiffin, the Vols’ head football coach for 14 months, was leaving to take the same job at Southern California, where he worked as an assistant under Pete Carroll from 2001-2006. Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks on Monday, opening the door for Kiffin.

It didn’t take long for word to reach a pair of local recruits, Gainesville High’s A.J. Johnson and Blake Sims.

The news filtered down to the duo in the Gainesville basketball locker room after the Red Elephants defeated Flowery Branch on Tuesday night.

“I was shocked,” Johnson said. “It must have been on short notice or something, because I just talked to Coach (Orgeron) last Wednesday.”

Johnson, an All-State junior linebacker, verbally committed to Tennessee in October but has now decided to re-open his recruiting process. Oregeron was Johnson’s lead recruiter, but Johnson said he hasn’t spoken with any former or current representatives of Tennessee since last week. He said Clemson, Alabama and Miami are now the teams at the top of his list.

Sims, the two-time Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year, recently backed out of a verbal commitment to Alabama and was considering a visit to Tennessee, one of numerous schools offering a scholarship.

“I was kind of favoring (Tennessee) and Alabama,” Sims said. “But now I’m just going to visit Alabama and Cincinnati before I make my decision.”

Sims starred for the Red Elephants as a multi-purpose athlete, primarily at quarterback. He’s been told he could play receiver and return specialist, as well as quarterback in a Wildcat package, in college.

Kiffin’s absence leaves the Volunteers in a lurch less than three weeks before national signing day, when most prospects will sign letters of intent making their verbal commitments official. In addition to Johnson, a 2011 recruit, the fallout has already cost Tennessee a chunk of its incoming class, as numerous highly regarded prospects have either withdrawn their commitment entirely or labeled themselves undecided.

Others — specifically the nine recruits in this year’s class who enrolled for the current semester — won’t have that option, according to Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. At a press conference Wednesday, he said those athletes are already considered students at the university and would have to sit out a year to transfer to another Division-I FBS school.

That refutes earlier reports which stated the students could withdraw from school without penalty if they had not attended any classes.
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