Tennessee's Ja'Kouri Williams (33) gets away from defensive back Stephaun Raines (29) during a scrimmage at football training camp on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Most of Stephaun Raines’ football career has centered around three concepts: Run fast, don’t get tackled and cross the goal line.
The former Dalton (Ga.) High School star has new goals as a sophomore-to-be at Tennessee: Run fast, hit as hard as possible and don’t let anyone cross the goal line.
The Volunteers’ new coaches have at least temporarily settled on the safety position for Raines, who dabbled at wide receiver and cornerback under the previous staff.
With Raines finally focused on a particular position, he and the coaches hope finally to reap benefits from the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder’s blazing speed.
“Any time you’re that fast, and you’ve got that good speed, that’s only going to help you out on the football field,” first-year UT secondary coach Willie Mack Garza said. “Stephaun definitely has those qualities. He’s a tough kid, an athletic kid with good speed and good strength.
“We feel like he’s only going to flourish in our secondary.”
At first glance, safety would seem the toughest spot to crack UT’s starting lineup. All-American Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley, if healthy and eligible, are virtual locks for the first unit. And if either of them went down, cornerback Dennis Rogan has proven he can shift back to that position without midweek preparation.
Sophomore-to-be safety Prentiss Waggner has made big plays all spring, too, and high school superstars Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles Jr. are set to arrive this summer. Redshirted freshman Rod Wilks has moved back to the secondary, too, after a brief stint at linebacker.
But Raines started Saturday’s scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. Berry is still held from full contact after offseason shoulder surgery, Morley missed for still undisclosed reasons and Rogan and Waggner opened with the second team.
Raines has practiced alongside Berry with the starters for weeks, lending some credence to Raines’ remarks that he was “absolutely” getting a legitimate opportunity to stick with the first team.
“I was kind of expecting it, honestly, because that’s what my coaches said, and I trust my coaches,” Raines said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “They’re giving me a shot like they told me they would, and all I’ve got to do is all I can do, and it will be taken care of.
“If they’re going to give me the shot, I’ve got to take advantage of it. Me and Prentiss are out there battling every day, and he’s doing what he has to do, too. We’re helping each other out, and may the best man win.”
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin thought heading into spring that Raines had enough speed to “cover the field,” but no one expected the smoothest transition. Raines admitted mixed results Saturday, but he wasn’t displeased.
“I played all right, but I made a few miscues and could have played a little bit better,” he said. “Still, at the same time, I felt like I helped my team out and didn’t really make too many mistakes and was where I needed to be at and made a few plays. I did what I had to do.”
Raines showed ability to pop pads when he separated the ball from Gerald Jones by blasting the receiver on a seam route. Friend and mentor Inky Johnson — a UT graduate assistant who played cornerback for the Vols until a career-ending nerve injury in 2006 — has jokingly told Raines for two years that he can’t wear No. 29 unless he plays with the same reckless abandon.
“I just had to get my mindset right, because last semester, coming from receiver, I wasn’t really a hitter,” Raines said. “But now my mind is just full-go, full-go, full-speed every time.
“I don’t really think when I’m about to hit anymore. I just run up and do it.”
Raines would like to add a little more weight, but he doesn’t plan to exceed 195 pounds. Regardless, he’s already 25 pounds heavier than his senior season at Dalton and 15 pounds heavier than his one year at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where he redshirted but quickly accumulated enough credits to enroll at UT.
“I don’t want to get too big, because I’m more of a ball-hawk safety than a big hitter,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got Mr. Berry on the other side for.”
Garza, a former defensive back standout at Texas, said Raines was “working hard, learning the defense and making progress. We have great expectations for him, and we feel like he’s going to play a tremendous role on our team.”
Raines acknowledged that he wouldn’t be considered an odds-on favorite to start this season, and he doesn’t daydream about that scenario for longer than a few seconds.
“I don’t even want to think that far ahead, but you can’t not think about it,” he said. “Once you start thinking about Western Kentucky, you just think, ‘Oh, man, I might be starting that game.’
“If I keep my poise and keep my composure on the field, and make sure I do all the right things, then it will happen. It’s meant to be.”