That’s when Harrell burst from season-long obscurity by winning Defensive Most Valuable Player honors in the Vols’ 38-7 blowout of Texas A&M. He recorded three tackles that day, including a thunderous opening-drive hit on Reggie McNeal that set the Aggie quarterback on his heels and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Harrell also had a sack and a fumble recovery in that breakout performance.
“Winning that award gave me a lot of confidence -- just to know I’m capable of going out and performing on that level,” Harrell said recently. “And it gave me motivation for this year to try and play every game like that … not just one game.”
Harrell, a junior from Martin who packs 306 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame, is a surprisingly effective pass rusher for a tackle. Although the Cotton Bowl sack was his only one of the season, he finished second on the Vol squad with 12 quarterback hurries. Obviously, he does a good job of getting to the quarterback.
His response? “Aw, I just lucked up and had some plays where the quarterback just kinda’ fell in my arms.”
Harrell should have a lot more of those plays this fall. So should Mahelona on the other side. Both Vols should stay healthier and more rested in 2005 than they were in 2004 because of UT’s superior depth at tackle.
“It’s great having Jesse over there,” Harrell said. “He’s going to push me, and I’m going to push him. And we know we’ve got three or four guys behind us (Turk McBride, Tony McDaniel, Demonte Bolden, Matt McGlothlin) who’ll come in the game and keep the same level of intensity up, so we’ve got a lot to look forward to this year.”
Mahelona earned All-America recognition last year and projects to be a marked man this fall. Most opponents will double-team him regularly, thereby freeing Harrell to make more plays.
“Oh, yes,” Harrell said, literally beaming. “Jesse’s going to have a lot of attention focused on him. Teams are going to scheme around him, so that’s just going to put more pressure on us – the other defensive linemen – to come up and make plays.”
Making plays is nothing new for Harrell. He made one of the biggest of 2004 “Between the Hedges” in Athens last October, helping spur the visiting Vols to an upset victory over the third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
“Justin Harrell had an exceptional year for us,” head coach Phillip Fulmer said. “The play he made against Georgia when he stripped Danny Ware was as big a play as there was in the season for us. He had a number of those plays during the course of the year and quietly has become a heck of a football player.”