Mitchell won the race, but that didn't detract from Hefney's brilliant season.
Jonathan Hefney had almost 100 tackles. He led the team with five interceptions. He led the team in punt returns. And former Tennessee assistant Doug Mathews thinks he is the best returning free safety in the nation.
``Leading the team in tackles was a goal last year,'' Hefney said. ``When Jason Allen played safety, he had over 100 tackles. My goal was to get more than him.''
Hefney fell sort, but not for lack of effort.
Hefney figured he, Mitchell and Jerod Mayo would battle it out for most tackles.
``Marvin would get mad when he saw I had more tackles (in a game) than him,'' Hefney said. ``Whenever he got injured, he wanted to get back in because he didn't want me to lead the team in tackles.''
Would Hefney rather lead the team in tackles or interceptions?
``Both,'' he said. ``I want to do all of it. I mean, if I could, I want to lead the team in receiving, but I can't. I want to do everything I can to help the team.''
Hefney believes the more he does, the better he plays.
``It helped me returning punts,'' Hefney said. ``At the beginning of the year, I wasn't in as good a shape as I thought I was.''
He lost some weight, improved his conditioning and turned into a dynamic returner and defensive back.
When cornerback Inky Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in the second game, Hefney, who played corner as a sophomore, wanted to hop to cornerback. Instead, UT moved Antwan Stewart from strong safety to corner and inserted Demetrice Morley into the starting lineup.
Hefney said he doesn't think he's a better safety than corner.
``Hopefully, I'll get a chance to play (corner in the spring),'' Hefney said. ``I want to. I just have to see what happens. If I get enough work at corner, I know I'll do better than what I am at safety.''
Tennessee starts spring practice Thursday.
CUTCLIFFE NEEDS RECEIVERS, LINE TO EMERGE
Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said this will be a huge spring for several of the Vols' offensive linemen and receivers.
UT linemen Anthony Parker and Eric Young are expected to miss all or most of the spring and center Josh McNeil (knee) could be limited. That means guys like Chris Scott, Ramon Foster, Jacques McClendon, Ramone Johnson, Vlad Richard and Steven Jones need to make big strides.
``Erik Ainge could be throwing behind five new linemen to three new receivers,'' Cutcliffe said.
Despite the loss of two starting offensive linemen and the top three receivers, Cutcliffe said the Vols could be better on offense this season.
PALM NOT HIGH ON VOLS' CHANCES
Jerry Palm of collegerpi.com doesn't paint a bright picture for Tennessee's chances of making it in the NCAA Tournament.
Palm said the fact Tennessee hasn't won an SEC road game jeopardizes UT's chances of making the 65-team field, even if the Vols go 8-8 in SEC play.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl doesn't agree. He said if UT goes .500 in SEC play, the Vols are a lock for an at-large berth.
But Palm said no team has ever been an at-large pick without winning a conference road game, and Alabama is the only team with just one overall road win to make the field – that was in 2003 when the Crimson Tide won at Tennessee.
Palm might have history on his side, but I don't buy it.
If Tennessee goes 8-8 in the SEC, the Vols will be no worse than an No. 8 seed.
Palm's logic is further questioned by his current projection of Tennessee as a No. 10 seed and Vanderbilt as a No. 5 seed. Tennessee's RPI is 15 and its strength of schedule is four. Vandy's RPI is 34 and its strength of schedule is 21. That doesn't justify Vanderbilt being seeded five spots higher.
Also, Tennessee beat Vandy by 27 in Knoxville while the Vols lost by a point in Nashville.
Vanderbilt does have a better SEC record – 8-4 to 6-6 – but the Commodores also have bad losses to Furman, Appalachian State and Wake Forest.
Asked if UT would get in at 8-8, Palm said: ``You sure are optimistic.''
If UT does, it definitely belongs in the Big Dance.
If not, UT's resume might still be better than many other potential at-large teams.