Tennessee's season opener is still nearly two months away, but the Volunteers are already making national headlines, placing five players on the preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards. The five representatives on the two watch lists is two more than other team in the SEC.
For the Robert W. Maxwell Award, which has been given out annually to the best player in college football since 1937, Tennessee is represented by junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs and sophomore running back Jalen Hurd. A trio of Volunteers made the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which has honored college football’s best defensive player at the conclusion of each season since 1995. Sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett, senior linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt and junior cornerback Cameron Sutton are among those vying for the prestigious honor.
Dobbs and Hurd are the first Vol players to make the Maxwell watch list since 2012 when quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Da’ Rick Rodgers garnered the honor. The first and only Tennessee player to win the Maxwell Award was Peyton Manning in 1997.
Dobbs is coming off of a very successful 2014 season that concluded with MVP honors in the TaxSlayer Bowl in a lopsided victory over Iowa. Dobbs started five games last season, leading the Vols to a 4-1 record. In six total games played, the dual-threat standout completed 63 percent of his passes and amassed 1,675 yards of total offense and 17 total touchdowns (9 passing, 8 rushing). Dobbs also has been named to several preseason All-SEC lists by various publications, including third team by Athlon Sports.
Hurd will attempt to be the first Vol running back to win the Maxwell. Last season, Hurd rushed for 899 yards and five touchdowns on 190 carries, while adding 35 receptions for 221 yards and two scores. The former 5-star recruit concluded his 2014 campaign by rushing for 122 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Hurd has also been receiving his share of preseason accolades (third-team All-SEC by Athlon), as most expect a breakout season for the rising sophomore in 2015.
As previously mentioned, the Vols are also well represented on the Bednarik watch list with three defensive standouts making the cut, more than any other team in the SEC, and matched only by Oklahoma and Notre Dame nationally. Tennessee has never had a player win the prestigious Bednarik award, but two Vols have been named semifinalists — linebacker Kevin Burnett in 2004 and defensive back Eric Berry in '08. The last Tennessee player to make the watch list was former linebacker A.J. Johnson, who landed on the list in both 2013 and '14.
All three of the Volunteer players represented on this season's Bednarik watch list are worthy of the honor and possess the talent to win the award, but none more so than Barnett. In route to Freshman All-American and second-team All-SEC honors, Barnett led all SEC true freshman with 72 tackles last season. He also broke UT freshman records for sacks in a season (10), a game (3, vs. both South Carolina and Ole Miss), as well as total tackles for a loss (20.5).
To put Barnett’s 2014 numbers into perspective, compare them to former South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s freshman totals. In 13 starts, Clowney had half as many total tackles with 36, almost half the number of tackles for a loss with 12 and two fewer sacks than Barnett.
A Vol fan favorite, fifth-year senior Maggitt also should make a strong case for the Bednarik in 2015. Last season, Maggitt recorded a team-best 11 sacks, which were good enough to rank third in the SEC. He also collected 48 tackles and 15 tackles for a loss. He is listed on several preseason All-SEC lists (Athlon second-teamer) for 2015, and a big senior season should result in multiple accolades at year’s end.
The final Tennessee player to be named a preseason Bednarik contender is Sutton. The star cornerback and punt returner has started every single game since he set foot on campus in 2013. As a sophomore, Sutton proved to be one of the better defensive backs in the SEC by successfully breaking up 13 passes, which tied him for the most in the league in 2014. This, in spite of opposing quarterbacks often choosing to avoid throwing in his direction. He also had three interceptions, a forced fumble and made 37 tackles last season.
As a punt returner, Sutton averaged just over 11 yards per punt return in 2014. His biggest return was a 76-yarder for a touchdown against Vanderbilt. Like Barnett and Maggitt, Sutton’s name can be found on multiple preseason all-conference lists for both roles. He's a second-teamer on defense on Athlon's 2015 All-SEC team and made the fourth team as a punt returner.
The Maxwell Football Club will announce the semifinalists for both the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards on Nov. 2, followed by the selection of the three finalists on Nov. 23. The winners of each award will be announced as part of "The Home Depot College Awards Show," which will be televised by ESPN on Dec. 10.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS