Cooper Melton, left, and his father, right, have been attending Tennessee football games since the early 2000s. The Walker Valley standout wide receiver on Wednesday announced his decision to play for the Volunteers as a preferred walk-on. (Contributed Photo)
No longer will Cooper Melton have to tailgate and wear officially store licensed orange-and-white products into Neyland Stadium on Saturdays in the fall. Instead, the Walker Valley senior announced his decision to play college football for the Tennessee Volunteers via a Twitter post Wednesday night.
“The feeling is surreal,” posted the senior Walker Valley two-sport standout, who has been invited to be a “preferred walk-on” with the Vols.
“I have grown up a Vol fan and went to my first game when I was seven years old. Ever since that day, I dreamed of being a football player at Tennessee. To see my dream become a reality is truly a blessing from God and honestly indescribable,” he said.
As part of a record-setting Mustang offense that scored 501 points in 12 games this past fall, Melton had a career season. The 6-foot-3 home-run threat wide receiver hauled in 61 catches for 1,123 yards (18.4 yards per catch) and scored 13 touchdowns.
While Melton had a partial scholarship offer from Tennessee Tech University and interest from Duke and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the past few months, the intrigue of playing for the Southeastern Conference program he grew up loving was one he simply could not pass up, after hard thought and prayer.
“The program is moving in the right direction and in a big way,” said Melton, who received a phone call earlier this week from the Volunteers offering him the walk-on spot. “I know everybody wants a national title at Tennessee. I promise you that is what they are striving for.”
While Tennessee finished 4-4 over its final eight contests after cracking the Top 10 with a memorable 5-0 start, the Volunteers were able to soundly defeat Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl.
“I remember a few years ago when getting to a bowl game was a worry, and now the expectations are at least an SEC title and a playoff spot,” Melton said of Tennessee, which was ranked 22nd in the final Associated Press poll. “The team had not had two nine-win seasons in a row since 2006 and 2007, until this year.”
With a strong frame at 205 pounds, to go along with a respectable 4.53 40-yard dash time and a 34-inch vertical leap, Melton has tools which many teams may regret not obtaining in the years to come.
Despite receiving late interest from colleges, the humble two-sport standout who also leads his basketball team in rebounds this season, is only interested in proving his worth to Tennessee.
“To play at the SEC level you cannot work just as hard as everybody else,” Melton said. “You have to love the weight room, bring 110 percent to practice every day and compete harder every rep in practice. God has blessed me with the opportunity of a lifetime.”
From watching a countless number of Tennessee football games live and on TV, Melton grew fond of star wideouts Robert Meachem and Cordarrelle Patterson. He also studied and implemented things in his own game, by watching film of Vols legends such as Joey Kent and Donte Stallworth.
Over his prep career, Melton totaled 27 touchdowns and 2,281 receiving yards, both all-time best records for WVHS, which was founded in 2001.
In the Mustangs’ first TSSAA playoff victory in program history, the talented receiver played a huge part in a 35-27 road upset of Oak Ridge on Nov. 4.
Melton finished with a game-high seven receptions for 150 yards, including scoring an 81-yard touchdown as he beat Clemson five-star signee Tee Higgins deep down the middle of the field. He also intercepted a pass intended for Higgins with 1:20 left in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.
“It means a lot to go out with a big season, but honestly I will remember the people that I made relationships with more than the stats,” Melton said. “All my coaches and teammates have helped me become a better player and person. I couldn’t do this without them.
“I guess you will have to watch the film to see if I burnt Tee Higgins,” Melton added. “All I know is the final score, and that’s all that mattered that night.”
Melton has a visit to Knoxville scheduled for Jan. 29, when he will meet the coaches and visit campus. No longer will he wake up on Saturdays to watch the Vols with his dad, but soon could be strapping on the pads on Saturdays during football season on Rocky Top.
“I am going to use this chance as an opportunity to give my all for Tennessee each day,” Melton said. “If you can’t get yourself up enough to bring it every day when you are playing at the University of Tennessee, you do not deserve to play at all. It is a blessing and I am going to give it my all and see where God takes me.”