Greatest Tennessee High School Football Players of All Time
Even casual football fans know the states most closely associated with high school football success — Texas, Florida and California. But those aren't the only places producing big-time high school football talent.
One of the most underrated states for high school football is Tennessee. Several players considered the greatest to ever play their position in NFL history have come out of the Volunteer State.
These are the greatest Tennessee high school football players of all time, with an extra emphasis on across-the-board success. So if a player succeeded at a high level across high school, college and the pros, we gave their ranking a little more weight. But the biggest emphasis was on high school.
15. Jacques McClendon
Position: Offensive lineman
School: Baylor School (Chattanooga, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Jacques McClendon kept up the amazing tradition of offensive linemen produced by the Baylor School and was named Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year in 2005. Pro Football Hall of Famer John Hannah also played for Baylor but transferred out before his senior season.
McClendon was also a USA Today All-American and U.S. Army All-American and signed with the University of Tennessee. He was a three-time Academic All-SEC selection and played seven years in the NFL.
14. Harrison Smith
Position: Defensive back/running back
School: Knoxville Catholic High School (Knoxville, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Harrison Smith dominated on both sides of the ball for Knoxville Catholic High. He was Class 3A All-State as a junior in 2005, then followed that up by being named Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year in 2006. As a senior, he also won state championships in the high jump and decathlon.
Smith started games at both linebacker and safety for Notre Dame and was the No. 29 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. Smith has spent his entire career with Minnesota and is a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL All-Pro.
13. Dillon Mitchell
Position: Wide receiver
School: White Station High School (Memphis, Tennessee)
Bottom line: White Station High's Dillon Mitchell was an All-State selection and the District Offensive Player of the Year as a junior in 2016, then put together one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in state history as a senior.
In 13 games in 2016, Mitchell finished with 81 receptions for 1,484 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns, along with 951 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He was named Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year and a USA Today All-American and signed with the University of Oregon.
Mitchell set the Oregon single-season receiving record with 75 receptions for 1,184 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018. He left school early for the NFL draft but was cut by the Minnesota Vikings after preseason camp in 2019 and 2020.
12. Al Wilson
Position: Linebacker/running back
School: Central-Merry High School (Jackson, Tennessee)
Bottom line: College football fans from the late 1990s and early 2000s can attest to the punishment linebacker Al Willson doled out to running backs in his time — first at the University of Tennessee, then with the Denver Broncos.
Before he was a college national champion and five-time Pro Bowler, Wilson was a star at Central-Merry HIgh, where he rushed for over 1,000 yards as both a quarterback and running back and was a high school All-American at linebacker.
11. Patrick Willis
Position: Linebacker/running back
School: Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High School (Bruceton, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Patrick Willis was born into abject poverty in rural Tennessee and was working full-time in the cotton fields by the time he was 10 years old.
Willis was a superstar at Hollow Rock-Bruceton Central High. He was the first high school football player in Tennessee history nominated for the state's Mr. Football Award for a Lineman and Mr. Football Award for a Back in the same year.
Willis was the SEC Player of the Year at Ole Miss in 2006 and a two-time All-American, then played eight seasons in the NFL before retiring because of a nagging toe injury. In his short time in the league, Willis made seven Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams and banked over $50 million in career earnings.
10. JaCoby Stevens
Position: Wide receiver/defensive back
School: Oakland High School (Murfreesboro, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Oakland High's JaCoby Stevens was dominant on both sides of the ball for Oakland High, but it was on defense where he earned USA Today All-American honors and was named Tennessee's Mr. Football in 2016.
Stevens, who had 15 interruptions across his last two high school seasons, was a five-star recruit out of high school and signed with LSU, where he was an All-SEC selection and helped lead the Tigers to a national title in 2019.
Stevens is entering his second season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022.
9. Dont'a Hightower
Position: Linebacker/defensive end/running back/tight end
School: Marshall County High School (Lewisburg, Tennessee)
Bottom line: If Dont'a Hightower isn't the best player on this list, he's definitely the most versatile.
Hightower starred at four positions for Marshall County High — linebacker, defensive end, running back and tight end. He was at his most dominant as a rush end, where he racked up 168 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 5 forced fumbles, 5 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries as a senior on his way to being named The Tennessean Defensive Player of the Year and a U.S. Army All-American.
Hightower is a dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide winner, with two national championships at the University of Alabama and three Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots.
8. Chad Clifton
Position: Offensive lineman/defensive lineman
School: Westview High School (Martin, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Westview High's Chad Clifton dominated at offensive tackle for his junior and senior seasons and was named Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year and a Parade All-American in 1994.
Clifton was a two-time All-SEC selection at the University of Tennessee, where he helped lead the Volunteers to a national championship in 1998. Clifton played 12 seasons in the NFL, all for the Green Bay Packers, where he won a Super Bowl in 2011 and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
7. Eric Gray
Position: Running back
School: Lausanne Collegiate School (Memphis, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Lausanne Collegiate running back Eric Gray is the only repeat winner of the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year Award, which he won in 2017 and 2018.
Gray's junior year of high school at Lausanne boggles the mind with 3,151 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns. After being named a two-time USA Today All-American, Gray played two seasons for the University of Tennessee before transferring to Oklahoma in 2021.
6. Randall Cobb
School: Alcoa High School (Alcoa, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Randall Cobb led perhaps the nation's best small-town high school football team, Alcoa High, to four consecutive state championships at quarterback and was named Tennessee's Mr. Football as a senior.
Cobb was an All-American wide receiver/return specialist/quarterback at the University of Kentucky and is entering his 12th season in the NFL, where he was a Pro Bowl selection with the Green Bay Packers in 2014.
5. Todd Collins
School: Jefferson County High School
Bottom line: You'll find few more storied schoolboy legends in Tennessee high school football history who match up to the Paul Bunyan-esque feats of Jefferson County High linebacker Todd Collins, who led his school to the 1987 Class AAA state championship and was named USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year.
Collins' college and pro football odyssey was insane. He signed with Georgia and transferred to Tennessee for one semester before he landed at tiny Carson-Newman, where he led the school to the 1989 NAIA national championship.
Collins started his career with the New England Patriots, where he started in a Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers in 1996. He was traded from the Patriots to the St. Louis Rams, where he started in a Super Bowl and won in 1999. Part of the trade for Collins from New England to St. Louis included the Rams' sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL draft, which the Patriots used to draft quarterback Tom Brady.
4. Jalen Ramsey
School: Brentwood Academy (Brentwood, Tennessee)
Bottom line: Believe what your eyes tell you. Jalen Ramsey has already established himself as one of the greatest cornerbacks to ever play the game. He's also not just one of the greatest high school football players in Tennessee history, but also one of the state's greatest track athletes.
After Ramsey became one of the most sought-after recruits in the country at Brentwood Cademy, won a national championship at Florida State as a true freshman in 2013 and helped lead the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 2022.
Ramsey, a three-time NFL All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl selection, signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension with the Rams in 2020.
3. John Henderson
Position: Defensive tackle
School: Pearl-Cohn High School (Nashville, Tennessee)
Bottom line: We can think of few human beings with a sheer physical presence comparable to legendary Pearl-Cohn High defensive lineman John Henderson, who stood at 6-foot-7 and 365 pounds in his prime.
Henderson, who also played tight end in high school, led Pearl-Cohn to back-to-back state championships as a junior and a senior and was named Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year and a USA Today All-American in 1997.
Henderson moved to defensive tackle at the University of Tennessee, where he won the Outland Trophy in 2000 and was a two-time All-American. Henderson was a two-time Pro Bowler and played 10 seasons in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders.
2. Steve Spurrier
School: Science Hill High School (Johnson City, Tennessee)
Bottom line: The son of a Presbyterian minister, few schoolboy legends in American history can compare to Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier was a three-sport star at Science Hill High, where he was all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He didn't lose a game in three years as a starting pitcher and won two state championships.
Spurrier went on to win a Heisman Trophy playing quarterback for the University of Florida and 10 seasons in the NFL. His real fame came as a college coach, where he spent 26 seasons as the coach at Duke, Florida and South Carolina, and won a national championship at his alma mater in 1996.
1. Reggie White
Position: Defensive lineman
School: Howard High School (Chattanooga, Tennessee)
Bottom line: There has perhaps never been a more dominant defensive lineman in the history of football than the late Reggie White, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound force of nature who cut his teeth at Howard High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
White was an All-American at Howard High as a senior, when he racked up 140 tackles and 10 sacks on the way to being named the No. 1 recruit in Tennessee for the Class of 1989. He stayed in-state to play for the University of Tennessee, where he was a starter by the end of his freshman year and the SEC Player of the Year in 1983.
White played pro football in the USFL and NFL for 17 seasons and set the NFL record with 9 seasons of 10-plus sacks. White, who was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, died of cardiac arrhythmia in 2004. He was 43 years old.