It didn't take Todd Campbell long to realize that the preparation to play college football requires a little something extra.
"The first day I thought I was going to die," Campbell said of his first conditioning workout. "It was a whole new world."
At least he is learning that now - far earlier than most of this fall's true freshmen. Campbell is one of five signees in Tennessee's recently completed 2007 signing class who enrolled at UT in January.
Defensive back Art Evans, defensive tackle Donald Langley and offensive linemen Cody Pope and Darris Sawtelle are the others.
"In the end, I feel like I'm going to get a leg up on all the other guys coming in," said Campbell, considered the 10th-best prospect in Tennessee. "It gives me a chance to learn the offense, get adjusted to workouts and just conditioning, because conditioning is real different from high school."
Early enrollment is a growing trend with college football's powerhouses. Jimmy Clausen, former Volunteers quarterback Casey's youngest brother, already is taking classes at Notre Dame. Last year, Florida QB Tim Tebow enrolled in January.
The chance to get acclimated early - and perhaps get a jump on would-be competitors for playing time - can provide plenty of incentive.
"It helps them, and it helps us," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
"A lot of people don't have this opportunity," said Evans, a product of Victory Christian High in Lakeland, Fla. "I was very excited."
Evans, recruited as an athlete and getting a first look in the secondary, said the chance to adjust to academic expectations was key, "especially when you have to do it on your own, wake yourself up."
The early jump on playbook preparation is just as important, especially at a position like the offensive line where blocking assignments can become complex in a hurry, especially with defenses using more and more multiple looks.
Pope was part of the 2006 signing class and moved in his dorm at Knoxville before his SAT score was invalidated by the NCAA Clearinghouse. Rather than enroll in a prep school, he stayed home in San Diego, worked out and took the test again.
"I might have had a year off but I think I might have needed it," said Pope, a 6-foot-5, 270-pounder rated with three stars by Rivals and four by Scout.com. "I think I'm a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser."
And right now, more than a little bit injured. Pope broke a bone in his right foot lifting weights and is expected to miss spring practice.
"I already had one setback, now there's another one?" he said. "I think I've developed myself to be pretty mentally strong. As long as I'm not in a wheelchair, I think I'll be all right. I'll be on the field soon enough."
That kind of confidence appears to be a common thread among the early enrollees.
"The ability to play early, it wasn't really a big factor because I knew I could've done that anyways," said Langley, a U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant who said he sees his career at Tennessee lasting "three or four or five years" - perhaps hinting already at dreams of an early exit to the NFL.
Pope sounded just as assured of his chances to make an impact.
"All the stars or whatever you're rated, the bottom line is, you'll see how many stars I'm worth on the field," he said.
Down the road, both may want to thank Campbell for his role in getting some of those four- and five-star players to Knoxville. A verbal commitment in April of last year, the Franklin, Tenn., product called several of Tennessee's targeted players trying to get them to join the Vols. He formed particularly close relationships with Chris Donald and Ben Martin, both of whom committed to UT at the Army All-American Bowl.
Fulmer made the five early enrollees available for interviews Wednesday after his national signing day news conference. Typically, true freshmen only are available for interviews on the team's preseason media day.