Junior Prentiss Waggner is on the 42-man watch list for the 2011 Lott IMPACT Trophy, given annually to the NCAA's top defensive player. When questioned about it following a two-hour indoor workout at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, Waggner's reaction was downright humorous. His eyes grew wide with surprise.
"I don't know nothin' about that," he said, smiling but clearly stunned by the news. "You guys are the first to tell me that. It's pretty much a surprise. I didn't expect to be nominated for the Ronnie Lott award. But it's a big honor for me, and I'll take it."
Other SEC players on the preseason Lott watch list are safety Mark Barron and linebacker Dont'a Hightower of Alabama, lineman Jake Bequette of Arkansas, cornerback Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina, cornerback Janoris Jenkins of Florida, linebacker Chris Marve of Vanderbilt and safety Brandon Taylor of LSU.
Waggner was tabbed a 2010 second-team All-America by Scout.com after recording five interceptions last fall, three of which he returned for "pick-six" touchdowns to set a program record. In addition, he earned second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Splitting time between safety and cornerback, he also registered 57 tackles and three fumble recoveries last season.
Former Vol teammate Eric Berry, another defensive back, was a finalist for the Lott Trophy in 2009.
"That's a big statement right there, when you talk about a guy like Eric Berry," Waggner said. "He made a lot of plays and made history here at this university. His name's going to live forever, so that's a big accomplishment."
The previous Lott IMPACT recipients were David Pollack (Georgia) in 2004; DeMeco Ryans (Alabama) in 2005; Dante Hughes (California) in 2006; Glenn Dorsey (LSU) in 2007; James Laurinaitis (Ohio State) in 2008; Jerry Hughes (TCU) in 2009 and J.J. Watt (Wisconsin) in 2010.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Waggner is hoping to have an even bigger season in 2011 than he had in 2010.
"I have a goal to be better than last year - get one or two more picks, focus on my tackling and improve in that area," he said. "This spring I've been working on my weaknesses - trying to be more physical, gain weight and try to be a more aggressive player on the back end."
His candidacy for the Lott Trophy isn't the only good news Waggner has gotten this week. X-rays on his injured left hand did not support the preliminary diagnosis of a broken bone. Waggner said the medical experts now believe there may be "a little fracture."
Still, he remains outfitted with a ball-shaped cast on the injured hand that limits his ability to function in the secondary.
"It's just a whole bunch of tape in a big pad," he said with a frown. "It's real frustrating."
Waggner was held out of last weekend's scrimmage but is hopeful team doctors will clear him to play in Saturday's Orange & White Game.
"They haven't told me yet," he said, "but the plan is to play Saturday."