Oregon tight end David Paulson (42) tries to get away from Tennessee cornerback Janzen Jackson (15) and Tennessee guard Jarrod Shaw (74) during an NCAA college football game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson is widely considered the Tennessee Volunteers’ most valuable defender.
Identifying their most valuable offensive player is a trickier task.
Some would vote for Gerald Jones, and they’d have a good case, considering UT’s third-down success with and without the senior wide receiver. Some would vote for Luke Stocker, and they’d have a good case, considering the senior tight end’s blocking and pass-catching prowess. Some would vote for Tauren Poole, and they’d have a really good case, considering the junior tailback’s solid season.
First-year head coach Derek Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have a different take.
They might vote for Jarrod Shaw.
Shaw — or “Shawdog,” as Dooley calls him — is a 6-foot-4, 331-pound, versatile offensive lineman. His three starts entering the season were the only three anyone had up front, and they came at tackle. Now he’s a right guard and left guard, though he could return to tackle or play center in a pinch.
He’s far from the Vols’ most dominant player, but that versatility has been a blessing for the depth-depleted team.
“Shaw’s our swing guy,” Dooley said. “He’s been, let me tell you ... to me, Shaw has been one of those MVP guys, not maybe because he’s out there dominating every snap, but he’s played almost every position on the offensive line.
“And every time a guy has gone down, he’s the guy that’s been the sacrificial lamb, because we have all these young guys we don’t want to move around ’cause they can’t learn. He’s been phenomenal, his attitude’s been great, he’s playing to his capacity, and so I’m proud of him.”
Shaw considered leaving the football team last season. The Louisiana native waited four years to enter his redshirt season as UT’s first-team right tackle. Then after three games, former head coach Lane Kiffin benched him in favor of promising redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas.
That was nearly the breaking point for a bright young man who’s on track to earn a master’s degree in Agricultural Leadership in May.
“Honestly, when that moment came up, I was thinking about just finishing my graduate degree and starting to apply for jobs,” said Shaw, who received an undergraduate degree in Sports Management in December. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
There are usually steps in cases like that, and Shaw made the first few. He tossed the idea around in his head for a few weeks and eventually talked to some teammates — especially close friend Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School and UT guard now playing with the Indianapolis Colts — but he never reached the final two steps. He didn’t call his mom, and he never broached the subject with coaches.
“Me and Jacques are real close, and he just told me to stick with it and you never know what will happen,” Shaw said.
Shaw’s luck drastically changed for the better when Kiffin and most of his staff — including offensive line coach James Cregg — left UT for Southern Cal in January.
“I was joyful, man,” Shaw said. “I knew I probably wouldn’t be playing a down here [under the Kiffin staff].”
Other factors basically forced Shaw back into the starting lineup. Douglas, who was supposed to be the front five’s only returning starter, left the program, leaving Shaw as the only linemen with any starting experience — a whopping three games.
As many expected, the Vols opened the Dooley Era with just two wins in their first eight games.
“It’s not fun,” Shaw said of the 2-6 start. “I wouldn’t wish that on nobody, man, especially for their senior year.”
But rather than shutting it down on the field, Shaw has recently played some of his best games, and the Vols have thrust themselves back into bowl contention with blowout wins over Memphis and Ole Miss.
“You finish what you start, man,” Shaw said. “My parents instilled that in me since I was young. Plus, the young guys, you’ve got to set an example for those guys, especially because I know what they can do the next couple of years.
“You just can’t give up.”
In a mature moment of clarity, Shaw recently said his only regret in college was “waiting five years to learn that you only play as well as you practice.”
Better late than never, though.
“It’s just what coaches always preach to you,” Shaw said. “Some guys choose to ignore it, some guys choose to embrace it, and I was one of those guys when I first got here that was like, ‘Yeah, right. I’m not going to go 100 percent on every down, every second in practice.’ But then, once you get out there in the game, it makes you better. I kind of went back to that toward the end of last year.
“And then this year, I didn’t do well the first couple of games, but I went back to it again, and I’ve been playing better the last few weeks.”
Shaw said the loss to archrival Alabama on Oct. 23 has been his only poor performance since a sloppy start to the season.
“The most important thing I learned [at UT] is to never give up,” Shaw said.
Still, professional football — especially at the NFL level — may not be an option.
That’s OK, though, Shaw said. That’s why he’s always hit the books as hard as he’s hit defensive linemen.
“If the opportunity presents itself, I’m definitely going to give [pro football] a shot,” he said. “I’ve talked to a few guys. I pretty much have a feeling that I’ll at least get a shot. But if that doesn’t work out, I’m not going to be disappointed or anything. I’ll just finish my masters’ degree here and I’ll start applying for jobs.”
For now, though, Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney are glad Shaw toughed it out on the field.
“I’ll tell you, I’m thankful he’s here,” Chaney said. “He’s moved around everywhere. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do, and if we even have an MVP — I don’t know if we do or if we don’t — but he’d certainly have my vote.
“He’s done a wonderful job.”