KNOXVILLE — Come June, Tennessee's defensive backfield is likely to become very crowded.
Well aware of this, the current Volunteers' defensive backs on campus have done the most with the head start of four full weeks of spring practice.
“Those guys realize what happened on signing day,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said after Wednesday's practice, “and they know June 1-3 there'll be a ton of new guys here who will be competing for playing time. The guys here obviously have a tremendous head start because they got to go through spring practice. I think they know and I think they've been a little more attentive to detail just because of the situation.”
That situation is the eight defensive backs the Vols signed in February in hopes of improving a secondary that ranked eighth in the Southeastern Conference and 81st nationally (229.6 yards per game) in passing defense and struggled against its own offense in last Saturday's scrimmage.
One of those eight, Justin Coleman, enrolled early and has had a solid spring in the rotation at cornerback, and the group also includes junior college players Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. Moore, who originally signed with Southern Cal out of high school and will start his UT career at cornerback, might be the best of the group.
Even though all eight signees might not end up in orange next fall, the competition over the summer and into preseason camp in August figures to be intense.
“It'll be immediate playing time,” Joseph said, “because during recruiting we told them, ‘We're not signing you to redshirt, we're not signing you to not have an opportunity to play.’ They know coming in, everybody'll have equal opportunity to get the snaps.”
Brent Brewer's starting job at strong safety may be the safest given his physical maturity and solid spring. Despite a hand injury, Prentiss Waggner has been working at free safety this spring in place of Janzen Jackson, who withdrew from UT for the spring semester for personal reasons. UT coach Derek Dooley said before spring started that Jackson is “on pace” to return, though his status remains uncertain.
Marsalis Teague, Anthony Anderson, Art Evans and Eric Gordon have been splitting reps at cornerback, where Waggner also finished as a starter last season.
“I think everyone of them has improved individually, and that's all I can ask for,” Dooley said. “They've had a great attitude, they've had a great work ethic, we've been pushing them really hard and been hard on them, and they've responded.”
Joseph is a big proponent of that competition, though the defensive backs that just finished four weeks of possess the advantage of an increased comfort level with the defense that comes with more experience.
“You can see they're a lot more comfortable with the system — the words means a lot more to them [and] they react a lot quicker,” Joseph said. “It's a lot easier for me to teach them and for them to get coached because we're all on the same page, [and] we're going to continue to try and become more consistent.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...