This season has been a trying one, in the middle of a slew of trying seasons, for the Tennessee Volunteers football program.
A lot has been made of the Vols current situation, having gone through three coaching staffs in the past three years, but as they say on Broadway, "The show must go on."
One of the constant questions bantered about during Derek Dooley's very first spring and fall camps as Tennessee's head man was how would the Vols defense stand up to a severe lack of overall depth?
Dooley started addressing this problem by going out and poaching a rising young star in the coaching profession, former Boise State d-coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wilcox brought a multiple look defensive scheme with him to Knoxville, with hopes of masking some of the Vols deficiencies.
As the season went on the Vols experienced some real highs and lows from their defensive unit, and ultimately in games against top tier opponents, like Alabama and Oregon, their lack of depth showed through.
But after opening the season 2-6, and struggling to find an identity, Wilcox's defense settled in for a solid November stretch.
There were several keys in the revitalization of the Volunteer defensive unit, but four players stick out in my mind as the linchpins to UT's efforts defensively on the year:
Senior LB Nick Reveiz
Nick Reveiz has had as rapid a rise through the ranks as you will ever see in college football.
He entered the program in 2006 as a walk-on who was highly regarded, but a walk-on nonetheless. The son of former Volunteer kicking great, Fuad Reveiz, Nick has been described by teammates and coaches as an absolute workhorse.
Nick earned himself a starting roll last season before a season-ending knee injury, but returned this year as one of the unquestioned leaders of this team.
However, Reveiz wasn't just a towel waiving honorary captain.
Make no bones about it, this kid could play and proved that throughout the year by leading his team in tackles.
Three times on the season Reveiz tallied 14 tackles in a single game, which was the highest single game output of any Volunteer on the season.
Reveiz was a crucial piece of holding this fragile unit together and that is why he has earned MVP consideration.
Junior DL Malik Jackson
Malik Jackson began his season on the left coast, as a member of the University of Southern California Trojans.
After Pete Carroll's departure and the NCAA's investigation into the USC football program, Jackson (as an upperclassmen) was allowed to transfer anywhere in the country.
He immediately became a fan favorite amongst Vol fans when he chose to spurn Lane Kiffin and the Trojans in favor of transferring to Tennessee. But it became quickly apparent that he was also a player.
Jackson started the year as a defensive end, but a weak defensive interior provoked a move inside to defensive tackle for the talented transfer, and on the interior he began to truly shine.
Jackson went on to lead the team in tackles for loss and sacks, and also lead the defensive lineman in tackles. He also added a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and one memorable interception in the Memphis game, which he went on to return 44 yards.
Without Jackson's transfer, the Vols, who were already extremely weak on the defensive front, would have been in quite a bind. Jackson's contributions at a position of need are what earn him MVP consideration.
Sophomore DB Prentiss Waggner
A Louisiana native, Prentiss Waggner was another pivotal piece of the Vols defensively this season.
Last year Waggner was a key reserve in the secondary for Kiffin in company, but in 2010 with the departure of safety Eric Berry to the NFL, Waggner's role was amplified.
It didn't take long for Prentiss to earn a reputation as a ball hawk, as he returned an interception for a touchdown in the season opener against UT-Martin.
On the season, Prentiss had five interceptions, three of which he returned for a touchdown, and recovered three fumbles. Waggner also showed some versatility in the middle of the season by making the switch from safety to cornerback.
Waggner took a boom or bust approach to 2010 and it was largely successful as evidence by his knack for making big plays, and that is why he has earned defensive MVP consideration.
Sophomore DB Janzen Jackson
Heading into the 2010 season, the expectations on Janzen Jackson were that he would be the guy to pick up the production and fill Eric Berry's shoes, which is an immensely tall task, but Jackson more than held his own.
Jackson was a five-star coming out of high school and played a big role in the Vols defense from day one in 2009 when he walked onto campus.
In 2010, he took his game to a whole new level and took on a leadership role in the Tennessee secondary.
Jackson tied Prentiss Waggner for the team lead in interceptions with five and also placed third on the team in tackles. As a safety, Jackson also played a surprisingly large role in stopping the run, adding four tackles for loss on the year.
Janzen faced enormous pressures coming into the season, but never faltered despite the unrealistic expectations and that is why he has gotten my attention as an MVP candidate.
These were the four guys, in my opinion, who stood out defensively for the Vols in 2010. Although, the unit wasn't our greatest, it's difficult to question the effort these guys put in to keep UT competitive. They had their rough times but overall I think they did an admirable job of holding it together.
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