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 — Prentiss Waggner’s around-the-world-style trip though the University of Tennessee secondary has come full circle.
Given the absence of Janzen Jackson, the Vols’ standout safety who is not in school this semester to handle some personal matters, Waggner is back at free safety — the position he started at in 2010 before a midseason switch to cornerback.
“It doesn’t matter what I play as long as the coaches put me somewhere and I’m out there having fun and making plays and trying to bring a spark to my team,” said Waggner, who returned three interceptions for touchdowns last season.
“Right now I’m going through the spring with the safety mentality. ... I’m having that mentality of playing physical and playing hard-nosed.”
UT has a wealth of experience at cornerback — Marsalis Teague, Art Evans, Anthony Anderson and Eric Gordon all saw significant playing time last fall — but limited bodies at safety this spring despite strong safety Brent Brewer’s return from a five-week offseason suspension. The Vols other two options are Dontavis Sapp, who was primarily a special-teamer as a freshman last season, and Rod Wilks, a journeyman who played in just four games last fall.
“Sapp’s been doing good,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s a great worker. He was a really good special teams player for us last year. His key is he’s going to have to have tremendous knowledge of the defense. He certainly can’t run, of course, like Janzen or Brent out there, and that’s OK. Doesn’t mean you can’t be a good player, but you just need a lot of reps.”
Waggner’s versatility will help UT this spring, though he may end up returning to corner in the fall. The current defensive backs are aware that time is of the essence. Including cornerback and midterm-enrollee Justin Coleman, the Vols signed eight defensive backs in this class, including Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, a pair of four-star junior college players. Those reinforcements mean the players going through spring practice need to make the most of their chance.
“I feel like that’s with everybody on the team right now,” Teague said. “The spring’s a time for us to focus on who’s here and welcome the new guys that did enroll early and try to teach them the ropes and try to get ahead.
“It doesn’t really matter if it’s five guys coming in or 15 guys coming in, it’s not going to change my performance when we’re on the field or the way we work, one way or another. We still have to keep working the best as we can no matter who’s coming in. We’re focused on what we have right now.”
While Teague, an eight-game starter at corner last year, is focused on the present, Waggner — whatever secondary spot he’ll be holding down — welcomes what’s coming.
“It’s not necessarily pressure,” he said. “It’s competition, because basically when you’re at the next level also they’re bringing in new guys to take your spot. I think the coaches know that what brings the best out of players is competition.”
In a secondary that will soon add bodies but not much experience, Waggner’s ability to play multiple positions is an asset.
“It’s very valuable for us, and it’s very valuable for him as a player as well,” Teague said. “The more you can do, the better off it is as a football player.”
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 ...