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Wilson enjoys delivering knockout blows

To get to tonight's national championship game, Tennessee had to do more than replace quarterback Peyton Manning's offensive production. It needed to find someone with his immeasurable leadership skills.

The Vols only had to look to the other side of the ball.

All-America linebacker Al Wilson doesn't throw touchdowns, but he still barks out commands in the huddle, demands his teammates' respect and makes big plays.

Tons of them.

Witness Tennessee's 20-17 overtime win over Florida in September, the game that vaulted the Vols to the SEC title.

Wilson forced a school-record three fumbles and had 12 tackles and a sack.

At the time, Tennessee's defense was a huge question mark. The Vols barely squeezed by Syracuse in their opener and were trying to replace seven starters from last season's 11-2 team.

"It was the greatest defensive game I've seen since Warren Sapp (at Miami) in bowl games," Tennessee linebacker Raynoch Thompson said.

A similar effort tonight at Sun Devil Stadium would go a long way toward helping the Vols win their first national championship since 1951. No. 1 Tennessee faces a Florida State offense with numerous weapons.

But quarterback Marcus Outzen, making just his third career start, will have trouble getting the ball in the hands of Seminoles stars if No. 27 from Tennessee is in his face all night.

"One of the things he does better than anybody I've seen in a long time is anticipate your snap count," FSU offensive coordinator Mark Richt said. "When he blitzes, he hits it on the run and it's very difficult to block him.

"If you've got a back responsible for him, it's difficult for him to get there before he gets to your quarterback, especially if you're under center. I think the shotgun may help you in that regard."

Wilson, 21, a 6-foot, 226-pound senior from Jackson, Tenn., had 4 sacks, 77 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries and 1 INT.

And all of that was done despite missing three games. Wilson was hampered by a shoulder injury that kept him from one game and a groin injury that knocked him out of the last two regular-season games. He returned and recorded four tackles and an interception in the SEC Championship Game against Mississippi State.

"Al has been a great leader, especially for what this team needed," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. "As far as emotion, Al had to actually channel some of that. He was incredibly vocal and hard on his teammates. We needed it to be positive instead of negative. That's been an incredible ingredient this year."

"My personality is to be a leader," Wilson said. "And at the same time, the leadership role was given to me (as captain). I try to set an example for the young guys down the road, when it's their turn to be the leaders."

Wilson sets his example with words and actions. Off the field, he chides his teammates, imploring them to stay hungry. Even when injured, he was on the sideline, yelling and screaming.

On the field, there is no backing off.

"It's very scary," senior cornerback Steve Johnson said. "Everybody's watching for Al out there. He's a very hard hitter. He's very intense. If you're not doing what he thinks you need to be doing, he'll tell you about it. I respect a guy like that."

Wilson's hard-hitting skills were not acquired by accident. At one time, he was an accomplished amateur boxer.

"I think the aggressiveness was already there," Wilson said. "But boxing really brought it out a little more. Being in the ring and being able to fight really helped out a lot."

The Seminoles will be in for a fight of their own, just trying to contain Wilson.