KNOXVILLE — It's the spot that every defensive back wants to play.
"I would too," Justin Wilcox, the University of Tennessee's defensive coordinator and a former defensive back himself, said after practice Wednesday morning.
Wilcox and the Volunteers, though, are still looking for someone to turn those desires into action and take hold of the appealing nickelback spot.
"You're involved in a lot," Wilcox added. "You're covering, you're blitzing, you're playing zone -- you're just in the mix. It's really a position that's important to us, and you've got to have different skill sets. We're mixing and matching people because of that right now."
The Vols are using two different combinations for their five-defensive back nickel package. One uses Eric Gordon, a physical redshirt sophomore, at the nickel back, and the other kicks ball-hawking junior Prentiss Waggner to nickelback and slides true freshman Brian Randolph into Waggner's free-safety spot.
Both Gordon and Waggner have expressed an enjoyment of playing the position this week.
"It's very fun," said Gordon, who's struggled at times with inconsistency and understanding the defense. "You can do a lot of things, and guys don't really know when you're coming. That's the beauty of it. I feel like I've definitely got the system down pat.
"I know what I need to be doing at the nickel. I feel very comfortable at the nickel. I feel like week in and week out, my preparation is going to be key."
Coach Derek Dooley said UT used a 50-50 split on its dueling nickel packages in its season-opening win over Montana last week, and Wilcox added that the Vols were in nickel more for more than 50 percent of the game's defensive snaps. With another high-octane spread offense visiting on Saturday when Cincinnati comes to town, that likely won't change.
Janzen Jackson had the nickelback spot locked down before his dismissal 10 days before the season opener, which forced the mixing and matching of personnel in the secondary that continued throughout preseason training camp last month to continue to the nickelback spot.
"Eric's a physical guy," Wilcox said. "He's shown he can be a good tackler at times. He needs to be more consistent at that. He's quick and strong.
"Prentiss has got really good instincts. He knows how to play leverages [and] he understands route concepts, so he's another guy that fits well down there in certain things."
The wildcard in the shuffle might the guy who's not even playing the fun nickelback spot. Amid the hype at the arrival of junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, Randolph, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia last year, slid under the radar. But the 6-foot, 190-pound Randolph's progression might allow the Vols to use Waggner at nickelback, which might be better suited to the skills he used to lock down a starting cornerback spot prior to Jackson's exit.
"It's really helped us out tremendously because we've got several different guys that give us different things at nickel between Prentiss, Gordon and Moore," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. "I think right now, especially for Brian, it's about getting snaps as he continues to develop. He allows us to do a lot of different things at the nickel position, and he can maybe in the future open up some options for us at corner because Prentiss can always go back there. It's been a situation where he's been a pleasant surprise here."
Randolph made just one tackle against Montana, but he made nearly made an acrobatic interception along the sideline in the second quarter, although UT was offsides on the play. Joseph noted that play on Wednesday as an example of Randolph's range and instincts, and the Vols have liked Randolph's intelligence since his recruitment.
"We're really not slowing anything down for him," Wilcox said. "He will make some mistakes now and again, and that's understandable. Everybody will. What we've got to do is cut down on the repetitive mistakes, make sure he learns from them -- which we think he will -- and as along as he does that, we're fine.
"I think Brian's done a good job evolving here in the last couple of weeks and he will continue to get better."
Correspondent Matt Dixon contributed to this story.
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 ...