Newly hired special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler took the podium on Monday full of energy and great stories, one that you might have heard before. Ekeler comes to Tennessee from North Texas, where he was the special teams coordinator last season.
It didn’t take long for him to start making an impression on the type of man and work ethic his players will be getting on a daily basis. Following his lone season with the Mean Green, Ekeler arrives in Knoxville to reunite with Vols head coach Josh Heupel, as they were graduate assistants together in 2004 at Oklahoma. Ekeler is no stranger to the SEC, as he coached at Georgia from 2014-2016 and was part of LSU’s 2007 staff that won an SEC and National Championship.
“It’s a whole different deal,” Ekeler told the media when asked about the SEC. “I’ve coached in all Power-5 conferences, been in the SEC for a total of 5 years, three at LSU and two at Georgia. To have that experience it’s just different than the Big-12, the ACC, this is the deep-end of the pool”
When it comes to what he wants his special teams unit to look like, he’s not just looking for starters on his unit.
“One thing we’ll do, we’re gonna play our tails off,” Ekeler said. “We’re gonna be all about technique, playing hard and playing clean.”
But today’s press conference also shed light on what recruiting might look like under Ekeler. Just last week, Rocky Top Insider was joined by one of his former players, Titans linebackers Will Compton. Compton told a story of Ekeler coming to his house on the last weekend of recruiting to watch a few NFL games and make one last pitch to him. It was during this visit from the defensive coaches and Ekeler that Compton decided to choose Nebraska.
Ekeler had pulled Compton aside on the visit and wanted to show how dedicated he was in landing him as a recruit. As Compton told it, Ekeler pulled up his sleeve and showed off a massive tattoo with a Nebraska jersey with the name Compton on it. Yes, the new special teams coordinator at Tennessee once got a tattoo of a players name just so he could convince him he was all-in. It didn’t take long for Compton to realize Nebraska was the place for him.
“It’s about connecting with these kids, as a coach you connect with them and once they understand and they get here, like the former players like Will Compton,” Ekeler said. “I told Will and all my former players this, my job is to earn your respect and let me be clear about that. If I can’t make you the best LB in the country than I am worthless to you, that’s my job and it’s my job to earn your trust and that happens over time”.
If you’re looking for the ‘football guy’ on this coaching staff, who’s up at 3 a.m. to start his day, without a cup of coffee and just a Red Bull, then Ekeler is your man. After talking with a few folks about the new special teams coordinator, it’s not hard to understand why he connects with his players so easily. As one former player said, “he’d go to war with you if he could, Tennessee is getting a dragon who spits fire.”
If that doesn’t convince you of the type of intensity these players are getting, then maybe a story of getting dropped out 27 miles away from campus on an interstate will.
“We were practicing, it was a spring practice, it was not one of our best practices,” Ekeler recalled. “I told the guys we had an early morning scrimmage in Memorial Stadium and I told the fellas, we’re going to have the greatest practice in Nebraska history today. I said, when we do, I am going to go run a marathon.”
If he was already feeling it from practice, it didn’t take long for him to get juiced up for a marathon run down the interstate outside of Lincoln. Ekeler said he had a friend that was heading to Omaha on I-80 and asked him to drop him off 27.5 miles away from the stadium. Yep, this coach was going to run a marathon today. Ekeler said all he had with him was a headset and GPS, just on the interstate alone, running towards the stadium.
One he started running though, he got 23.5 miles in and a state trooper pulls over and tells him he cannot be running along the interstate, the Trooper could lose his job if he allowed Ekeler to continue. This man decided to go run almost 24 miles after a BBQ with some boosters, keeping his word to his players. Maybe coach Ekeler likes to play survival games, I don’t know, but on that day he was steadfast in his goal.
Tennessee’s new special team coach wakes up at 3 a.m. without a Red Bull or coffee. He will tattoo a kid’s name on his arm to get him to commit and he’ll run a marathon in 90 degree heat down an interstate in Nebraska because he said he would.
Yep, Tennessee found the right kind of special teams and outside linebackers coach.