When the Independent Herald reported last December that Oneida standout Kolby Morgan would likely wind up at the University of Tennessee, one well-meaning reader responded, “Why would he even consider UT as a walk-on when he may never get substantial playing time or a scholarship…?”
Yet, Morgan — in his third game as a 19-year-old true freshman — had the Neyland Stadium crowd of 80,000 buzzing with a booming 55-yard punt in the second quarter of Saturday afternoon’s game against Tennessee Tech.
Morgan signed with the Vols as a preferred walk-on, turning down scholarship offers from several D-I schools — including Army and Navy — in the process.
Not only did Army and Navy offer Morgan a scholarship, but they made it clear that they wanted him to play runningback. That, after all, was his primary position in high school, where he was a 3,000-yard rusher.
Tennessee made no such commitment to Morgan. But as a college prospect, Morgan was most highly-rated as a special teams player. ProKicker.com rated him as one of the top punter prospects in the nation.
It wasn’t just FBS schools like Army and Navy that offered Morgan. He could’ve played for Tennessee Tech, the school he helped the Vols defeat on Saturday. He would’ve almost certainly have seen significant playing time for the Golden Eagles. Or he could’ve gone to the University of the Cumberlands up the road in Williamsburg and had a chance to be a star at the NAIA level.
Morgan had bigger dreams.
“It’s just that no one from my hometown really makes it big,” Morgan told 247 Sports in January. “I just want to be that one person that makes it big.”
That’s a dream that’s been shared by thousands of young football players from Scott County, and from any other small town in East Tennessee: first, to run through the T. And, then, to actually get to play in front of 100,000 fans.
Morgan isn’t the first standout athlete in East Tennessee who has turned down scholarship offers at smaller schools to chase his dream at Tennessee. He isn’t even the first standout athlete from Scott County who’s taken that route. The late Freeman Walker, who was personally recruited by the legendary Gen. Robert Neyland, is believed to be the first player from Scott County to play for Tennessee (though Walker was originally from Dayton and moved to Oneida as an adult). There have been multiple others since then — most recently, Dylan West, who walked on as a wide receiver and was later awarded a scholarship by Butch Jones.
Morgan had already gotten the experience that many young players dream of: Taking part in the Vol Walk, running through the T, and being on the sideline of a UT game.
But when he got the nod to punt in place of the injured Paxton Brooks on Saturday, Morgan fully realized the dream.
His first punt was a so-so, 35-yard kick in the first quarter. Not too shabby, but not especially impressive.
Morgan’s second punt, though, had Twitter buzzing and all of Scott County talking. It was a 55-yard boot — all of it in the air — to Tennessee Tech’s 5-yard-line. That’s not just an average kick from a walk-on true freshman who’s in the game because the coaches don’t have any other choice. That’s the kind of punt that college All-Americans make — including guys like Dustin Colquitt, who punted at Tennessee and went on to the NFL where he became a Super Bowl winner.
“#PunterU never stops. Freshman Kolby Morgan, fillin in today for Paxton Brooks, just hit an absolute bomb,” 247 Sports reporter Wes Rucker tweeted.
“Man, what a leg on that kid,” tweeted freelance writer Jake Nichols.
“Kolby Morgan just punted one to Neptune. Holy cow,” tweeted some dude named Zack.
On the Vol Network, analyst Pat Ryan was equally impressed. “He kicked that to Oneida!” Ryan exclaimed.
The audience of 80,000 that showed up on a rainy Saturday to watch the Vols take on their FCS foe was hardly a capacity crowd, but it was still four times as many people as there are in all of Scott County — let alone those who watch a local high school football game on an average Friday night.
It’s safe to say, Morgan had his moment. And even if he never sees the field again in an orange uniform, he has made a name for himself.
Will he? See the field again, that is? Well, here’s the thing: Brooks, Tennessee’s starter and one of the top punters in the nation, is a senior. He’ll be gone after this season. Morgan is currently the only other punter the Vols have on the roster. Nor has Tennessee currently received any commitments from punters in the 2022 recruiting class.
All of that will shake itself out in due time. But no matter how this one ends, it’s already a storybook — a dream come true, and a lesson to young athletes in small, rural communities like Scott County that you should indeed reach for the stars.