Staff Photo by Dan Henry UT's Marsalous Johnson (31) blocks South Carolina's Charles Turner (59) as his teammate Dennis Rogan (41) runs the ball during the first half of play Saturday. The Volunteers played the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday evening.
KNOXVILLE — There’s a flip side to all University of Tennessee football players getting equal chances to earn starting spots under a new coaching staff.
In some cases, that scenario can be clearly spotted at the same position.
Dennis Rogan, entrenched as a starter in the Phillip Fulmer regime, still hasn’t overtaken lesser-known teammate and good friend C.J. Fleming atop the cornerback depth chart.
Fleming has pleasantly surprised first-year head coach Lane Kiffin and secondary coach Willie Mack Garza, who claimed to give every player a clean slate — for good or bad — in hopes of reviving a program accustomed to competing for Southeastern Conference championships.
“When Coach Kiffin first came in, he said, ‘Practice is going to be all about competitiveness,’” Fleming said Tuesday night. “And that’s exactly what it’s about every day. The guys who play the best will play at the time.
“This is like a perfect example. Not bragging on myself, but the first couple of days of spring when we first got started, I had some of the better practices. Then Brent Vinson got hurt, and they just moved me right into the spot.”
And they kept Rogan — who started all 12 games last season — on the second unit. Vinson’s shoulder injury and safety Demetrice Morley’s dismissal haven’t elevated the Knoxville native back into the top spot at either position. Art Evans has stayed No. 1 at the other cornerback spot.
Rogan has experience at free safety, and he’ll probably get a longer look there in the wake of Morley’s departure, but youngsters Stephaun Raines and Prentiss Waggner have stayed the top two spots at that position this spring.
“Coach Kiffin said moving to the 2s would help spice up the competition,” Rogan said Tuesday night. “The first couple of spring practices, I was with the 1s, and then I moved back to the 2s, and I’m just competing.
“It’s tough, because you’re thinking maybe you won’t get to play this year, but it’s only spring. You’re still working. You’re still trying to get everything down there and learn everything, just like the people going in before and behind you.”
Fleming might not hold off Rogan, Vinson and several talented incoming freshmen in preseason camp, but his newfound confidence grows with every snap spent on the first team.
“It’s a privilege when you’re with the 1s,” Fleming said. “Everything is sharp. Everybody’s going to know the checks. You don’t have to go out there with the 2s in a situation where this free safety doesn’t know the check on this or that. When you’re with the 1s, everything is crisp.
“I’ve got to keep that spot. I’ve got to compete every day and make plays and want that to be my spot. I know that if I slip up, Rogan’s going to take it right back.”
Fleming — a slight, 5-foot-10, 173-pound, sophomore-to-be from Virginia — improved three points to a 91 grade in Saturday’s scrimmage. He intercepted an ill-advised Jonathan Crompton pass and returned it nearly 30 yards near midfield.
“I’m just absorbing what they’ve got for us,” Fleming said of the new defensive coaches. “This system’s just much easier for the corners to play. It’s just more free for us. It’s going to be cover 2, cover 3 or man-to-man basically for the corners now.
“Last year, and I’m not downing anything, but with (John Chavis’s) defense, it was a lot more responsibility. This is just a lot more free — show your athleticism and make some plays.”
Rogan and Fleming have four classes together this semester, but they said awkwardness hasn’t been an issue. They talk technique, scheme, audible adjustments and other topics related to Monte Kiffin’s famed “Tampa 2.”
“It’s not weird, because that’s my buddy,” Rogan said. “We both feel just like everybody else, that whoever’s the better player should be in there, for the sake of the team. So whoever’s better should play.”
“And it’s not like I’m even out of it right now or anything. You’ve got the whole summer, and then you’ve got August.”
Rogan said he wouldn’t complain about a permanent move to safety, but he wouldn’t mind taking a few more days to firm up his cornerback assignments before possibly taking the plunge.
“I’m fine playing anywhere on the field,” Rogan said. Anywhere they need me to play, I’ll play. I’ll do anything I can to help the team.”
Lane Kiffin said the staff has kicked around several possibilities for Rogan, who also hopes to retain his spot as UT’s primary return specialist.
“We’re going to continue to look at our secondary,” the head coach said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for guys.”