Next Generation: Tennessee football freshman ‘Air Canada’ Josh Palmer cleared for takeoff

MIRAMAR, Fla. — Tennessee freshman receiver Josh Palmer didn’t know how college football would challenge him in Knoxville, but the former St. Thomas Aquinas receiver knew he could handle it.

In Palmer’s mind, he has to handle it.

It’s just like high school all over again, when he made the move from the Toronto suburbs to live with his aunt, Sonia Vassell, in South Florida after his sophomore year, intent on making a name for himself.

“That was just me thinking I have to put Canada on a map,” Palmer told SEC Country during an in-home interview in May. “You know, Andrew Wiggins (the 2014 NBA No. 1 overall pick) is from Canada, and you’ve seen what he does, so I want to be the Andrew Wiggins of college football.”

RELATED: Josh Palmer has never seen a Tennessee football  game at Neyland Stadium

Palmer, a.k.a., “Air Canada,” is off to a good start in Knoxville, impressing Tennessee coach Butch Jones and tough-minded offensive coordinator Larry Scott.

“His mental makeup is what we like about him,” Scott said. “He comes from a very competitive school in a very competitive state, so you get him here and the competition is something he doesn’t shy away from, at all, in any aspect.

“Mentally, physically, he’s been what you thought he would be, but I didn’t know it would click for him this fast.”

Jones has said Palmer is challenging for a starting position.

“Josh Palmer continues to do very good things,” Jones said after Fridays’ practice. “He’s pushing some older players at the receiver position as well, so I really like what I’ve seen.”

And to think, two years ago, Palmer had just 3 catches for 30 yards during his entire junior season of high school football.

The journey

Palmer spent nearly four hours on a city bus most days a year ago at this time, commuting to and from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale from his home in suburban Miramar when he wasn’t able to catch a ride via car pool.

“I’d wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’d have to get to the bus stop by the gas station — an 11-minute walk — for the 5:40 bus,” Palmer told SEC Country in May. “I take the No. 28 bus, that’s about half hour to 45 minutes, wait 5 minutes for the No. 2 bus to come, and then ride 45   minutes and then wait 10 minutes for the No. 30 bus to take me the final 15 minutes to school.”

It was the same routine — in reverse — after practices and classes each day. Palmer said he used a phone app to learn the city bus system.

“I’d do homework on the bus,” Palmer said. “When you wake up at 5 in the morning, you can’t be in bed at 12, so you have to prioritize.”

No doubt, when you’ve moved more than 2,300 miles away from your parents just to play high school in South Florida, priorities are involved.

But Palmer knew playing high school football in Toronto — even as the No. 4-rated player in Canada after his sophomore season — wasn’t going to give him the best opportunity to report.

“I looked at boarding schools in Pennsylvania and Chicago, and then I came down here knowing my aunt lives near the school,” Palmer said. “At the time, I didn’t know the legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas — I just knew it was a very good school academically, and then later I realized how many draft picks it had produced, how many guys it sent to colleges and the NFL, and that motivated me a lot.”

The expectations

Tennessee wide receivers coach Kevin Beard was familiar with Palmer before he was hired in January, and he was comparing him to departed Vols receiver Josh Malone before Palmer even arrived on campus in June.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m used to pressure,” Palmer said. “Moving down from Toronto to Florida, there was pressure on me to represent Canada as a receiver in the mecca of high school football.

“So, I don’t think pressure will affect me that much at Tennessee.”

Scott says he hasn’t seen Palmer show any nerves.

“Such is the case with kids that play in programs like that in South Florida,” Scott said. “They are used to competition, they are around a lot of talented guys, and each and every day they learn to work and compete.”

That was certainly the case for Palmer, who had only 3 catches for 30 yards his first season at St. Thomas Aquinas, not starting any games his junior year.

“At first I had doubts, but I wasn’t thinking ‘I want to go back to Canada,’ ” Palmer said. “Something in my head would say, ‘Was this a waste of time?’ I didn’t want to feel like this was a waste of time.

“I had to work with what I had and shape it the way I wanted it to be shaped,” he said. “It’s hard, but you have to believe. I know it sounds cliche, but you’ve got to believe in yourself.”

The upbringing

Keith Palmer, Josh’s father, knew his son had a knack very early in his life.

“When Josh was born, one of the first things I put in his hands was a football. It’s a fact,” said Keith Palmer, a social services director in Toronto who played cornerback at the University of Windsor.

“Josh was able to catch it very early. He would hug and embrace the football, and the hand-eye coordination demonstrated itself very early. I knew I had to take advantage of this and expose him to any sport that had a ball.”

Tennessee-football-Vols
Tennessee wide receiver signee Josh Palmer with his father, Keith Palmer, on May 20, 2017. (Mike Griffith/SEC Country)

Josh Palmer was a standout goalie in soccer, so good in fact that he had an opportunity to move to Europe to play. He also played for one of Canada’s premier AAU basketball teams, “Bounce.”

But football was his game, and Keith Palmer knew it, and went to great lengths to help Josh groom his skills throughout middle school and into high school.

“I put him on a treadmill in the basement and I cranked it, so he would be jogging on the treadmill and I would throw him the football,” Keith Palmer said. “Then I started throwing a 7-pound medicine ball, and once he got that down, I lined up 20 tennis balls and threw them at him, and he would catch them with two hands, and then one hand.”

Josh Palmer was not only playing football his freshman and sophomore years of high school, he was training every day.

“One year on Christmas Eve, it was solid ice, and we worked outside, I told him ‘You have to learn to play in this, just in case they call your number in the NFL,’ “ Keith Palmer recalled. “I knew his interest and commitment — to the game, and to practice  —  was high.

“That’s what convinced me to take that leap of faith and allow him to move to Florida to play high school football.”

The recruitment

January 31, 2015 — that’s the date Josh Palmer found his way onto the national college football recruiting map, turning in an MVP performance at a high school all-star game in AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

Palmer was on the Canada All-Star team that beat the U.S. National Under-16 team, 34-17, with Palmer making 5 catches for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.

“That was the game that really elevated me,” said Palmer, who attended St. Roch Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario.

Indeed, Syracuse knew about Palmer and offered him a scholarship after his junior year at St. Thomas Aquinas, even though he had only 3 catches that season.

More schools came calling with scholarship offers: Michigan, UCLA, Penn State, Nebraska and Louisville, among others.

Palmer took off during the second half of his senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas, and Tennessee turned the heat up on his recruitment.

“Tennessee came to see me the third round of playoffs, but it was strictly Syracuse to that point,” Palmer said. “Coach [Zach] Azzanni came to the game and watched me, and the coaches at St. Thomas were telling me to look at Tennessee.”

Azzanni showed up to see Palmer practice and visited with him afterward.

“What triggered my interest in Tennessee was that in that game he came to, I didn’t have any receptions. We basically went with the run game,” Palmer said. “But Coach Azzanni said he was impressed with how I was blocking and how physical I was. I take pride in my blocking, because being a complete wide receiver is something I pride myself in.”

Palmer proceeded to visit Tennessee, along with UCLA, and picked the Vols and week before signing day.

“On my visit, some made fun of my accent, and we laughed about it,” Palmer said, “and some asked me if I lived in igloos growing up. They think it’s cold 24/7 there.

“I’m happy with my decision, I’ve been prepared for what’s ahead.”

Tennessee Next Generation stories

 

Tennessee 2017 football signee Josh Palmer talks about trek from Canada to Florida and now the Vols

Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Saturday, May 20, 2017

The post Next Generation: Tennessee football freshman ‘Air Canada’ Josh Palmer cleared for takeoff appeared first on SEC Country.

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