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Tennessee Lands One on Athlon’s All-SEC First Team Defense

Tennessee Football
Tennessee EDGE James Pearce Jr. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee landed one player on Athlon Sports’ preseason First Team All-SEC Defensive team.

The list, which can be found in the Athlon Sports College Football Preview magazine, features Tennessee defensive lineman James Pearce Jr. as the lone Vol on the list of 13.

Pearce saw a breakout season in 2023 put him on the map, finishing off the year with a lights-out performance in a shutout game against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. The rising Tennessee junior quickly began receiving more and more buzz during the offseason which peaked with several projections as a way-too-early contender for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Pearce is a player that Tennessee will rely on to attack the quarterback this season with a unique combination skill set of physicality and speed.

The Charlotte, N.C., native ended the 2023 season with 29 total tackles, 18 solo tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss for 71 yards, 10 sacks for 59 yards, two passes defended, two forced fumbles, and one interception return for a touchdown.

“James has got a great football future in front of him,” Tennessee HC Josh Heupel said of Pearce after the Citrus Bowl. “He’s a great player right now, but he’s got a chance to be extremely special. And for him, just continuing to grow in his understanding of football IQ as we continue to move him around and put him in positions to win is gonna be extremely important as we go through this offseason.

He’s dynamic, he’s got multiple moves to affect the quarterback. But there’s still growth in some of those fundamentals and continues to grow in how he defends the run. He’s doing that well, but there’s still some growth there. I say all of that, he’s a dynamic playmaker for us. He’s really rare. Got a really bright future in front of him.”

More from RTI: Recruiting Expert Gives Tennessee An Optimistic Report for Elite Prospect

Tennessee and Pearce will face eight of the other 12 First Team All-SEC defensive players from Athlon Sports’ preseason rankings throughout the 2024 season:

  • DL Landon Jackson, Arkansas
  • DL Deone Walker, Kentucky
  • LB Mykel Williams, Georgia
  • LB Danny Stutsman, Oklahoma
  • DB Maxwell Hairston, Kentucky
  • DB Malachi Moore, Alabama
  • DB Malachi Starks, Georgia
  • DB Billy Bowman Jr., Oklahoma


Tennessee will avoid the other four preseason All-SEC First Team selections, at least in the regular season:

  • DL Nic Scourton, Texas A&M
  • DL Walter Nolen, Ole Miss
  • LB Harold Perkins Jr., LSU
  • DB Jahdae Barron, Texas


What’s immediately noticeable about the list of players is that four of the five All-SEC First Team defensive backs will be lined up across from Tennessee receivers at some point throughout the year. Instead of players from Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Florida, the majority of the SEC’s projected top defensive backs come from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma this year.

Tennessee and James Pearce Jr. will kick off the 2024 season against Chattanooga in Knoxville on August 31 at 12:45 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

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