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There are still almost three months until Tennessee takes the field for his 2024 season opener against Chattanooga on August 31, but the preseason accolades are already starting to roll in for one of the Vols’ best players. Defensive End James Pearce Jr.who is coming off a breakthrough All-SEC sophomore season in 2023, landed on his first of likely many preseason watch lists for college football’s most important awards on Wednesday. The edge rusher was selected as one of 42 candidates for the Lott IMPACT Trophyis awarded annually to the defensive player of the year, taking into account not only performance on the field but also character.

The award is named after the former NFL star defensive back Ronnie Lottwho won four Super Bowls and was selected to the All-Pro first team eight times during his career with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets. He played college football in Southern California and was selected No. 8 overall in the 1981 NFL Draft. Lott is an inductee into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Pearce is one of 13 SEC players named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy prospect list, which includes 18 defensive backs, 13 defensive linemen and 11 linebackers.

According to the award websiteThe Lott IMPACT Trophy is “the only major award in college football that takes character into account” and goes to the player “who has had the greatest impact on his team both on and off the field.” IMPACT is an acronym that highlights the award’s focus areas: integrity, maturity, achievement, academics, community and tenacity. Previous winners of the award, which was first presented in 2004, include David Pollack (2004), DeMeco Ryans (2005), JJ Watt (2010), Lukas Kuechly (2011), Derrick Brown (2019), Aidan Hutchinson (2021), Will Anderson Jr. (2022) and Junior Colson (2023).

(Photo: Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics)

The winner, chosen by a national panel of past winners, media representatives, coaches and IMPACT Foundation board members, will be announced during a gala on December 8, 2024 in Newport Beach, California.

Pearce developed into one of the best pass rushers in the SEC in his second season with the Vols, regularly showing his ability to take over games. Among his 28 tackles for 14.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, he recorded Tennessee’s first single season with double-digit sacks since Derek Barnett in 2016. He is one of the SEC’s leaders in sacks and ranks second in the conference in tackles for loss.

He was the highest-rated edge defender in the SEC, ranking fourth nationally in overall rating (90.9) and third in pass rush rating (92.4) according to Pro Football Focus, while being credited with 52 quarterback pressures.

Pearce had multiple TFLs in seven games and recorded sacks in eight games. He had two sacks against Virginia And South Carolina and 1.5 in the Citrus Bowl against Iowawhen he also returned an interception for a touchdown in the victory on New Year’s Day. Pearce was awarded five quarterback hurries in the victory against Texas A&M and forced fumbles on sacks against Alabama And Iowa.

The 6’5″, 230-pound former Top247 prospect has been repeatedly projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2025 NFL Draft and will likely be on every preseason watch list considering defensive players for his junior season this fall.

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