2011 2nd Annual Tennessee Volunteers Football Blue-Collar Vol Awards
It was a year of haves and have-nots...well, mostly have-nots, unless you are an optimist, and you may then choose to believe that everything was peachy.
Honestly though, the Vols' season turned out an impressive finish when it could have been much, much worse.
The haves—so to speak—really come from the passionate play of a few players that leave everything on the field. They wake the next morning looking and feeling like they have been run over by a caravan of dump trucks. They can be recognized on the field a number ways.
They are the ones who get up limping from a play and refuse to leave the field. They are also the ones who are forever pointing at themselves, shouldering the blame for a blown play, when most likely it was them who kept catastrophe from unfolding. They either shrug off the water boy or drink until the squeeze bottle goes flat.
They're also the ones at the end of a game who are bleeding, broken, sprained and have the dirtiest uniforms. They suffer defeat the worst of any and celebrate the hardest when victory is theirs.
When the clock strikes zero, they literally have nothing left, but when the situation arises they still muster up enough energy to crawl through more overtime regulation. These are examples of NCAA football players—and why universities give them free education for their services.
Without further eloquence, here are your 2010 Blue-Collar Vols.
Blue-Collar Vol: Chad Cunningham
Rarely do I include punters or kickers in the same category as being blue-collar, but this year Mr. Cunningham made the cut.
Chad Cunningham wrote himself into the stat books this year and could be one of the Vols' best punters in history. But the reason he makes my list is not because of his 50-plus-yard punt average or his 4.50-plus hang time.
He gets the bottom nod this year for his 25-yard scamper at South Carolina. The run was without contact, and to be truthful the offensive line did its job so well that coach Harry Hiestand could have pulled it off.
The nod goes to Cunningham for being hit late out of bounds at the end of the run and getting speared into the equipment locker head first. He then jumped up and trotted back to the field away from the Gamecocks laughing, like he just kicked the can.
The look on Steve Spurrier's face was priceless.
Blue-Collar Vol: Luke Stocker
What can you say about this big man that hasn't already been said? He's big, strong, tough; he can block comparatively well; and when need be, he catches a clutch pass and runs effectively when the situation allows.
It's not really a fair description to those who follow his play, but to say anything else and omit the generic description would also be unfair.
Luke Stocker won't be remembered as a Jason Witten, but he will keep his history untarnished as a head-first runner that never shied away from traffic.
Stocker's stats don't exactly jump off the page, but he was still relevant when he needed to be. He was a great clutch receiver and blocked incredibly well for his weight.
He will be best remembered this season for a first-down run over a Kentucky defender like he was a Wildcat tackling dummy.
Blue-Collar Vol: Malik Jackson
To be honest, if the water boy had left Lane Kiffin and company for the mountains of Tennessee, he probably would have been received with just as much zeal and enthusiasm.
Regardless, there were probably more than a few that did a little snarky dance upon the discovery that Malik Jackson was an orange sympathizer, trading in his beach and sushi for a river and biscuits.
Still, if you take away some very costly penalties, he was one the most effective defensive players in Justin Wilcox's thin arsenal. He penetrated the offensive line efficiently and made short work of the runners who encountered his long arms.
He gets my nod for doing whatever was required of him. Defensive end? No problem. Defensive tackle in the middle of the season? No problem. Can you be good at either? You bet your Smokey I can.
Thanks for peeing on Ed Orgeron's shoes.
Blue-Collar Vol: Darin Gooch
Darin Gooch stood in the shadow of Cody Pope for much of the season until circumstances put the "Gooch" in.
You have to consider this: Nobody, and I do mean nobody, wants to be a center...that is, until your body grows into mammoth proportions and universities start beating down your door.
It's a thankless job that offers little in the way of rewards. Much of the time you face two or more defensive linemen waiting to grab you by the throat or hyperextend your shoulder. You have two-and-a-half to three steps before the line crumbles, and you shoulder the blame because the guard or tackle didn't move six inches to the right or left respectively.
Darin Gooch left Butte College as a "Center God" and then got dropped into the land of SEC, where "Center Gods" are fairy tails and big men are chopped down on a play-by-play basis.
For adjusting quickly, staying game healthy and keeping the QB from being concussed or worse, he should be patted on the back all the way to spring practice.
Take a bow, Gooch—you deserve it.
Blue-Collar Vol: JaWuan James
Anytime a true freshman takes the stage, it's usually mentioned around receivers, QBs, safeties...you know, small quick guys.
Linemen don't usually take the stage until they have at least redshirted, and more often than not the depth is strong enough that you don't see them until their sophomore year. That wasn't the case with JaWuan James.
The Georgia native stepped in when he was needed the most and did what many thought he couldn't do: compete.
Following with natural talent and superb direction from Harry Hiestand, he will be a Volunteer superstar by next season.
He gets my nod just for showing up.
Blue-Collar Vol: Gerald Jones
Gerald Jones was never Peerless Price, but what Jones lacks in hand skills he more than made up for in tenacity.
Often facing off against defenders that were far superior in speed and size, Jones found ways to sneak under the radar and snatch away first down receptions and more.
What many often forget is the danger receivers put themselves in on every catch. Either leaping for a high pass or extending for a wide shoot, Jones sacrificed his torso and exposed knees on countless occasions.
What he gets my nod for are his fingers. Scrapping with defenders equals broken digits. Jones eschewed tape in favor of colored rubber bands to disguise his mangled fingers; he was afraid the tape would tell too much of a weakness.
Rumors are he spent the offseason taped heavily to allow mending.
That's pretty freaking tough if you ask me.
Blue-Collar Vol: Montori Hughes
When you get the quality out of a player like you can out of Montori Hughes, you immediately start looking for ways to use him more. That's exactly what Derek Dooley did when saw the level of play issuing from the young sophomore.
Hughes turned out not only as an effective run controller, but also a great pass rusher. His intensity may have surfaced through his personal struggles at home and then later academically, when Phillip Fulmer originally offered him a shot and had to postpone his Volunteer debut.
Either way, Dooley expects him to hurdle his academic obstacles and return next spring to provide more of the same intensity we saw against a bewildered LSU.
Study hard, big man.
Blue-Collar Vol: Tauren Poole
Kiffin turned his nose up at Poole because he had to make good on his promise to start his defunct 5-star prospect Bryce Brown. Little did he know that Fulmer must have known a little something about recruiting when he stocked the cupboard with the Toccoa, Georgia native.
Poole was never large in stature, but he proved to be a relentless runner on the field, breaking the 1,000-yard mark. The fact that he did this without the help of an All-American or All-SEC offensive line is remarkable in itself—which leads to this question.
Would it not be fair to say that he rushed for 1,000 all-purpose yards?
It doesn't matter; he's still one of the toughest on the field. He gets my nod for standing toe-to-toe with SEC defenses, shrugging off bruises and sprains galore and coming back for seconds.
Blue-Collar Vol: Prentiss Waggner
In football it's hard to argue quality against quantity, but with Waggner it's certainly up for debate.
Looking at Waggner's numbers, it's fair to say that other players contribute more. However, when you really watch him on the field, it's easy see why I place him here among the ranks.
As far as grit goes, he has plenty. He has the mental toughness to up against the best the SEC has to offer, and he has the physical prowess to prove he belongs.
I hate stats, I really do, but he has 63 tackles on the season with five interceptions. It's hardly Eric Berry numbers, but his four open-field tackles and short INT return against Ole Miss won me over.
Blue-Collar Vol: Chris Walker
Chris Walker is the prototype for work ethic. After five minutes in the weight room you understand why. There isn't any time wasted in the weight room when Walker is there; in the time he catches his breath he picks up another weight or does light cardio to stay moving. After a long 30 seconds it's back to business.
It's almost the same way on the field. Walker only netted 45 tackles this season, but what is endearing is that 24 of those came from assists.
The senior DE is literally all over the backfield; in the Oregon and Florida games he marked eight tackles with four solos, which really highlighted his abilities but didn't exactly showcase them.
Walker gets my nod for his penetrating fight. Giving away as much as 65 pounds in some cases, he still managed to frustrate OLs and give offensive coordinators unexpected aggravation from somebody that Kiffin described as "just juco."
Remember this Vol. He will marry an NFL team and spark up a defense quickly.
Blue-Collar Vol: Tyler Bray
Records, records and records; if he does nothing else, he'll still be in the Vols' record books as having one of the best true freshman starts ever.
Bray gets my nod not for his ability to pass, but for being able to stay healthy against SEC opponents despite his small stature.
I'll admit some heavy prejudice; I thought the young man was way too small to survive one play, much less half a season, but he has proved me wrong. He has been pummeled and driven head first into the turf, slammed on his throwing arm and crumbled under three "BIG" defenders, and he still got up fast enough to clap the next huddle.
I think his heart is bigger than he is.
Blue-Collar Vol: Matt Simms
Say what you like about Simms: unbalanced, immature, inconsistent. Whatever the case may be, he ran the first half of Tennessee's season and did so with a blue-collar type of grace.
Bray was kissed compared to the beatdown that Simms took, waiting for a young offensive line to show up.
Getting knocked down as much 16 times in one game will take its toll on you no matter who your dad is, and regardless of your ability. Coach Dooley tried to rest him after each of those car crashes, but Simms remained on the field, unwilling to show any weakness from the Vols' offensive leader.
He will go down in my book as one of Tennessee's toughest QBs—he took a licking and kept on ticking. If any QB can match his improvements from Louisville to Tennessee, they will be potential All-Americans and never have to worry about playing.
Blue-Collar Vol: Nick Reveiz
Last but certainly not least is Nick Reveiz, the Vols' defensive leader.
He is the Batman to Tennessee's Justice League, shouldering as much of the burden as possible and always looking for more. Reveiz, in my humble, unsolicited opinion, carried the Vol defense.
If you go back and look at any game, you will find Reveiz in the heat of audibles, shifts, receiver gambits and discovery, and he still managed to pile up 100-plus tackles.
Even Kiffin was in awe of his leadership and how he always managed to help the team in some way. Before and after play he was forever counseling the younger players, trying make them better. He made Justin Wilcox's job much easier; if he finds another LB that can do 50 percent of what Reveiz did on the field, Wilcox will have a well-managed defense without lifting a finger.
Thanks Nick—you are a blue-collar Vol.