It appeared he was set to become a noteworthy example of new coach Butch Jones’ motto of rebuilding the Vols’ program “brick-by-brick.” But as a four-star defensive end prospect, Lambert’s signature was in high demand. So the closer it got to junior college national signing day last month, the harder Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner pushed.
That persistence struck a chord with Lambert.
“Coach Garner didn’t give up on me,” he said by telephone Tuesday. “It kind of just showed me that he had a lot of respect for me and my decision and that he wasn’t going to stop recruiting me.”
Garner’s doggedness paid off, as Lambert cast his lot with the Tigers on Dec. 18.
The Vols' faithful, as one would expect, were not pleased. They weren’t shy about letting him know, either.
“I got a lot of negative things from Tennessee fans,” said Lambert, who made 36 tackles (14 of those for losses) last season at Georgia Military College. “But during recruitment, that just happens. I didn’t let it get in my way or take me out of focus.”
Clarity came to Lambert in another form Nov. 30. Already starting to waver in his pledge to Tennessee thanks to Garner, everything “fell into place” when Lambert witnessed the intensity of the Iron Bowl first-hand.
“It took me away,” he said. “That rivalry between Auburn and Alabama, I just knew that one day I wanted to play in that game.”
He’ll get his chance soon enough.
In the immediate future, however, his arrival in Auburn has been temporarily postponed. Even though Lambert finished up the junior college season last semester, he didn’t qualify academically to enroll at Auburn this spring. Instead, he’ll likely begin classes in May or June.
When that happens, Lambert said he’s already got a major in mind.
“As of right now, I’m thinking about physical therapy,” he said. “ … It’s just something I’ve been interested in since I was a little kid, so that’s why I’ve been thinking about that.”
While he’ll have to wait a bit longer to officially start his career as a Tiger, Lambert has already started to familiarize himself with the campus. He was on hand this past weekend as Auburn hosted more than a dozen members of its incoming class on official visits. Lambert said he had already developed friendships with tight end Jakell Mitchell and linebacker Deshaun Davis, among others, giving him the opportunity to start forging bonds with Auburn’s other commitments.
What aspect of the weekend stood out the most?
“If I had to say only one thing, it was all the football players that were at the basketball game, giving the Auburn basketball team support,” said Lambert, referring to Auburn’s narrow, 68-61 loss to No. 7 Florida last Saturday. “It showed me that they love sports. They’re showing up to support other teams. It was good to see.”
His fellow recruits weren’t the only players he conversed with, though. Lambert also took time to pick the brains of Gabe Wright, Ben Bradley and Jeff Whitaker, linemen who have had a year to learn under Garner. Ironically, it’s a departing lineman Lambert will most resemble when it comes to on-field responsibilities.
Just as Nosa Eguae did last year, Lambert said Auburn’s coaching staff has told him they envision him moving between end and tackle.
“I’ll be playing defensive end on first and second down and then on third down I’ll going against a guard, or maybe a center, at tackle,” he said. “Wherever they put me, I’ll be ready to play.”
Having had reps at both spots during his high school and junior college career, Lambert said he’s “comfortable” at either position.
What might unnerve opponents in the coming years is the quality of this recruiting class, Lambert said.
Given how good the Tigers were this past season — 12-2 overall, SEC championship and within 13 seconds of a national title — Lambert said the 2014 recruiting haul will ensure there’s no dropoff.
“It’s just amazing at all the talent coming in with this year’s class,” he said. “It’s going to be phenomenal.”