KNOXVILLE — Terry Joseph set five chairs in the middle of a meeting room inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex in his first meeting with the University of Tennessee's defensive backs.
"I said, 'Stand up if you think you have the ability to help us win games,'" the Volunteers' secondary coach and recruiting coordinator recalled.
"Twenty-two guys stood up. I said, 'Well, here's the problem guys: there's only five spots for you guys to go in.'"
Speeding toward the season opener, the number of open spots might be down to two.
Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer entered camp entrenched as starters at the safety positions, and each has tightened his hold on his spot.
The other three spots were up for grabs between incumbents Marsalis Teague, Prentiss Waggner and Eric Gordon, junior college transfers Izauea Lanier and freshman Justin Coleman, who was a spring-practice surprise after arriving to UT in January.
"[No.] 23 has to be out there in some way, so I think we have three," Joseph said of Waggner, a junior who played both cornerback and safety and scored three touchdowns off interception returns last season.
"Now we're pushing for two, and we've got to find what's the best fit. That's the value of Prentiss, because it could be somebody from the safety pool or it could be somebody from the corner pool because he gives us the ability to do both. He's valuable."
The Vols have been shuffling players around in their secondary with the goal in mind of finding their best five defensive backs. Moore has worked at all three, and Jackson has seen some looks at the nickel back as the Vols try to take advantage of his skill set.
"We're really playing a lot of guys in a lot of different spots," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "That's good early, and they're going to learn a lot because we're going to make them learn it. Then we can get the right guys in at the right spots when we need to. The problem with one guy coming in and playing corner and that's all he learns, well, he might be your fifth-best DB and you play him a safety at times so that's the reason we do that."
UT was eighth in the Southeastern Conference in pass defense last year and struggled with ability to use its five-defensive back nickel package due to depth issues. That forced the Vols to sign a handful of new defensive backs, including the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Lanier and the 6-1, 200-pound Moore out of junior college for more immediate help.
"They're bigger than some of the guys that we've had here, and I think that's key," Joseph said. "Now you've got that safety body and some corner cover ability. That's what was attractive to both of those guys.
"Now one thing I'm happy with both of them is how quick mentally they've picked it up. They've both had great summers getting in shape on and off the field, and I think they've been in the playbook. What they're doing on the field is a result of that. Both those guys have the potential to contribute a ton for us this year."
The expectations for Moore and Lanier were high when they arrived on campus in June, and UT's coaching staff loves Coleman's physicality and competitiveness, though coach Derek Dooley has said this week the Vols are still looking for some cornerbacks to emerge and more out of the secondary as a whole.
With the attention on the new additions, holdovers like Waggner and Teague might have gotten lost in the shuffle, though Teague's steadiness and Waggner's ball-hawking skills have kept them very much in the mix.
"Prentiss is a very instinctual guy," Wilcox said. "He's smart, he understands how offenses work, he understands how route distribution works, he knows what we're trying to do -- he uses all that. He's got good length, he's not the biggest heaviest guy in the world, but he just knows that he's got good instincts for the game."
The luxury the Vols will have this season, though, is the ability to play guys based on ability and production instead of just out of necessity. That's created a competition throughout camp that's just slightly closer to a conclusion.
"As I tell them every day, there are no excuses," Joseph said, "Now the production has to go up. Now we've got to make the plays. That's been the key throughout this whole training camp: producing."
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 ...
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