Locals hit the D1 college football scene.
To become a Division I football player means you’ve already overcome the odds. Of the estimated 1.1 million high school football players in the U.S. every year, only 6.5% make it to play for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) school, and only 2.5% will make it to play for a NCAA Division I school. Here, meet five Chattanooga area grads who pushed their way into that 2.5% through drive, discipline, and commitment. Now they’re beginning their freshman seasons at Tennessee, Duke, Mississippi State, and Arizona State.
By Brian Beise
LASZLO TOSER (above)
High School: Ooltewah High School
College: The Universityof Tennessee, Knoxville
Laszlo Toser is one of the best kickers to come out of the state of Tennessee’s 2015 graduating class. In his senior season at Ooltewah, he was named Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Kicker of the Year – honors belonging to the best high school kicker in the state of Tennessee. The award followed an 11-1 Ooltewah Owls’ season that didn’t end until the second round of the Tennessee 5-A playoffs.
Current Ooltewah head coach and Toser’s former coach, Mac Bryan, is quick to point out the impact Toser had in his time at Ooltewah as a three-year starter. He says people tend to forget how vital kicking is to a team. “Laszlo kicked 77 times last season and 71 of them were touchbacks,’’ he recalls. Those kicks meant Ooltewah’s opponents started on the 20-yard line, creating a significantly longer field.
Toser served as a weapon on the punt team as well. Bryan adds, “We didn’t have more than a handful of punt returns because he’d punt it so high. Field position changes a game.’’
Toser’s level of success rarely comes without hard work and dedication, especially as a kicking and punting specialist. In fact, he spent much of his time training on his own. “It’s a lot like being a golfer,’’ coach Bryan explains. “You get coached, but a lot of it’s how hard you’re willing to work on your own. Laszlo embraced that. His family invested a lot of time and energy embracing it too. He went to a lot of instructional camps.’’
Toser’s hard work paid off. Earlier this year, he made the decision to become a Tennessee Vol under head coach Butch Jones as a preferred walk-on. As Toser makes his way to Knoxville this fall, Bryan looks forward to seeing him excel.
Ringgold High School
College: Duke University
Position: Defensive Tackle
Zach Morris was recruited as one of the top-60 defensive ends in the nation. It didn’t take long for him to find a good fit – during his junior season as a Ringgold Tiger, he committed to Duke. This fall, he will begin his collegiate career there, preparing for a career in medicine while making the move to defensive tackle under head coach David Cutcliffe.
At Ringgold, Zach Morris earned Georgia Class 3A first team All-State honors in both his junior and senior seasons. As a senior, he was named the Region 6-AAA Defensive Player of the Year by the league’s coaches. Needless to say, the 6’3’’, 295-pound defensive tackle established himself as a defensive playmaker in high school.
It’s common knowledge that the best defensive linemen have a rare blend of athletic traits – size and strength to compete in the trenches, and speed to get into the offensive backfield in a hurry. Robert Akins, current head coach of the Ringgold Tigers and Morris’s former coach, says Zach Morris has all the above. “He was almost a freak of nature, to be honest,’’ Akins recalls. “He was so big, strong, and quick that he dominated everybody.’’
Morris took his play a step further, though: instead of relying only on his size and strength, he strived for technical excellence on the field. He also worked hard to excel in the classroom at Ringgold. Akins credits Morris’s parents for his work ethic. “They taught him to do the best he could with the talents that God gave him.’’
As Morris sets off for Duke, Akins is confident he will be a valuable addition to the team. “He’ll do great things on his own but he’ll do even more to support the team and make sure the team is successful. That’s what he brings more than anything else.’’
By the end of his junior season at Baylor, Nick Tiano had garnered attention as a quarterback to watch – not only among Chattanooga high school football fans, but also Division I football programs.
In his senior season, he led Baylor to regular season victories over Montgomery Bell Academy and Webb School of Knoxville, both of which went on to win the state championship in their respective classes. That same season, Tiano led the Baylor Red Raiders to the Tennessee II-AA semifinal, where they were knocked off in a rematch against Montgomery Bell Academy. For his efforts, Tiano was rewarded with Tennessee Division II Class 2A All-State honors for the 2014 season.
Baylor football head coach Phil Massey describes Tiano as an unselfish leader. “He’s what a lot of coaches would consider a ‘coach’s dream,’’’ Massey says. “He’s incredibly talented, works hard, and is humble.’’
Playing at the collegiate level has been Tiano’s goal since childhood. “Nick never wavered in his goal and did whatever it took to get the job done,’’ Massey says. “He worked really hard no matter what the circumstance or the competition. Every day he brings great attitude and great effort. That’s an admirable trait and one that can’t always be taught.’’
In addition to his offer from Mississippi State, Tiano received offers from Miami (FL) and a number of other schools. Prior to beginning his senior year at Baylor, he made the decision to commit to Mississippi State, noting that was where he felt most at home.
“He’ll push himself to be his very best down there,’’ Massey says.
High School: Notre Dame High School
College: Arizona State University
Position: Defensive Back
Kareem Orr is one of the best defensive backs to come out of a Chattanooga area high school. By the time he committed to Arizona State University, he had already racked up more than 25 scholarship offers from college programs.
According to Charles Fant, who coached Orr for three years at Notre Dame, Orr fell in love with the state of Arizona. He felt like the university, players, and coaches were the right fit for him. “If he continues to improve at the rate that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, I have no doubt that he’ll be very successful there,” says Fant.
A physical cornerback with great hands, Orr is a two-time recipient of Tennessee Class 3A first team All-State honors. Following his senior season at Notre Dame, he was named to USA Today’s All-American team. “His coaches compare him to Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets because he’s so great at man coverage,” Fant says. “His technique is great too. That combined with his ball skills allow him to cover some of the best guys on the field.”
While Orr is a natural talent, his willingness to learn helped take him to the next level. “It was an incredible experience working with Kareem,” Fant says. “The opportunity to have a player who wasn’t only a great athlete, but also personable and coachable, was outstanding.”
Off the field, Orr is known for his infectious personality. “You’ll rarely leave a conversation with Kareem without a smile on your face,” Fant says. “He’s upbeat and loves life.”
High School: Signal
Mountain High School
Position: Offensive Tackle
By the beginning of his senior year at Signal Mountain, Harrison Moon had more than 10 offers from schools like Penn State, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and more. A formidable offensive tackle, he committed to Mississippi State, where he felt most comfortable around the players and coaching staff.
Moon was a four-year starter at Signal Mountain. Beginning as a tight end, he made the switch to tackle from his junior season to his senior season. “His dedication and athleticism made the challenging change a seamless one,’’ says Bill Price, who coached Moon at Signal Mountain.
His hard work paid off. In his senior season, he earned Class 4A All-State honors for the second consecutive season. Now standing at 6’4 and weighing in at 281 pounds, he’s the ideal offensive lineman. “Between his long arms and great size, he’s a prototype. They’re not easy to find,’’ Price says.
Moon didn’t stop at size and strength in high school. On top of working hard on the field, he spent long hours in the film room. “He became a student of the game,’’ Price says. “He’s a great technician and is willing to learn. His style is all about the fundamentals.’’
“I’m looking forward to watching him grow as a player,’’ Price continues. “It’s so difficult to make it to where he is now. Playing offensive line in the SEC is tough!’’