published Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Prentiss Waggner lays claim to starting position at UT

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    Tennessee defensive back Prentiss Waggner intercepts a pass intended for Tennessee-Martin's Maurice Taylor (1) during a September game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Tennessee won 50-0. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE -- The steady junior, the junior college transfer with the ideal size and the athletic freshman with a notorious competitive streak.

Amid the competition for the University of Tennessee's two cornerbacks spots, Prentiss Waggner has risen somewhat quietly to the top. The junior ball-hawk has enough versatility that the Volunteers could play him at any of its three secondary positions, but Waggner has found a spot.

"I know the playbook in and out," Waggner said after Saturday afternoon's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. "I know the linebackers and D-ends, basically the whole defense. I'm comfortable wherever they put me."

With the Vols' preseason camp drawing to a close on Wednesday, Waggner has found a home at one cornerback, with junior Marsalis Teague and true freshman Justin Coleman fighting it out for the other spot. Junior college transfer Izauea Lanier also figures to fit into the rotation as the Vols plan to play a handful of defensive backs and use their five-defensive back nickel package a majority of the time.

Each of UT's cornerbacks has a unique attribute that makes them different. Teague was the Vols' best player there last year despite battling a nagging turf toe injury most of the latter half of the season, Coleman's physicality and competitiveness have impressed the Vols' coaches since his arrival on campus in January and the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Lanier has the staff's ideal size for the position.

Waggner, though, has the experience, instincts and playmaking ability -- he took three interceptions back for touchdowns last season -- to go along with his production this month.

"He's pretty settled at corner right now," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think he's been our most consistent corner. He's still got that ability to go to safety if something happens or just depending on who we play. Prentiss has been playing the best, most consistent out there."

The Vols have liked Coleman since the four-star recruit out of Brunswick, Ga., showed up to a camp last summer and battled receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who would eventually join him at UT, in one-on-one drills.

"They went every time, DeAnthony would win three and Justin would win one, but I mean they went like 30 times in a row," secondary coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph recalled last week. "Justin Coleman not one time said, 'I'm tired, give me some water.' He just said, 'Let's go, line up again, line up again.'

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"We knew his competitive character, and that's what really was the deal-closer for us, was that this guy, he's one of our guys. That's made us take him and offer him [a scholarship] and get him. Obviously he's proven so far that we were right."

The 5-10, 183-pound freshman was a surprise during spring practice, and he's brought the competitive nature he showed at the camp as a high school senior with him to UT.

"That's the No. 1 thing I like about the guy," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said last week. "He is extremely competitive, and if he gets beat, he lines right back up and wants to play again. Playing corner, that's the No. 1 thing. That's huge, so he's continued to show that he's a willing tackler, he's a physical guy, he can run and I expect Justin to get better really fast.

"We're going to push him, and he knows that we're holding him high expectations, but that's the way it's got to be for him."

That may not translate into Coleman starting ahead of Teague, who's proven his ability, and Lanier, who continues to progress after his late start in the race in terms of experience and comfort with UT's defense. As Teague put it, the corner's focus is on individual improvement rather than the competition from their teammates.

"We're not really worried about the depth chart," he said. "We just kind of go in when the coach calls us. There's some days where there's a different person in there. We're not really worried about that, we're just focusing on getting better every day."

Dooley said after two practices last week he was looking for more from his cornerbacks, and later in the week he gave his preferences for the position.

"You've certainly got to have a level of size and speed to hold up, you've got to have some instincts, and then you've got to have a little playmaking ability, meaning if the ball's in the air and you're there, you've got to make the play," he said. "You're going to get beat some. They're going to catch some balls, but you've got to have a little playmaking ability."

Which is probably why Waggner sits atop the race less than two weeks before UT's season opener.

"I'm still out there floating around, from corner to nickel to safety," he said. "I'm just out there having fun."

Correspondent Matt Dixon contributed to this story. Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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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