KNOXVILLE — Prentiss Waggner is finally the old man in Tennessee's defensive-backs meeting room.
Yet the Volunteers' new system might have the versatile Waggner and his defensive teammates feeling young.
Coordinator Sal Sunseri's complex scheme will be fourth Waggner has had to learn since arriving at UT from Clinton High School in Louisiana in 2008. But now he must be a resource to the other players in the secondary.
"The only difference I would say is ... I'm a fifth-year senior," Waggner said after Monday's workout. "I have to be more vocal out there. It's pretty much just being a leader in the back end, with the defense and on the team."
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound veteran has started all 25 games the past two seasons. He bounced back and forth between safety and cornerback, where he's more of a natural fit. After starting the Alabama and South Carolina games at corner last season, he's back there this spring.
"I'm pretty happy at the corner," he said. "I'm working in at the nickel position also, so it's been pretty fun."
The Vols hope Waggner can provide some stability at cornerback after it was a mess from late August through last fall. Janzen Jackson's preseason dismissal kicked Waggner back to safety and pressured freshman Brian Randolph to develop faster at safety. It also began a revolving door at the corner spots.
Marsalis Teague started the first six games at one corner, but poor games against Georgia and LSU pushed him from the lineup. After starting the season's first two games, freshman Justin Coleman didn't start again until the year's ninth and 10th games, and that was only because Waggner had to go back to safety when Brent Brewer injured a knee ligament against South Carolina. Junior college transfer Izauea Lanier started the last eight games.
Though the secondary lost only one start from 2011, coach Derek Dooley cautioned last week that the Vols had work to do, especially with technique. Some players said that has been a big emphasis for new corners coach Derrick Ansley and new safeties coach Josh Conklin.
"Last year we played a lot of man [coverage]," Waggner said. "This year we're playing more press man, so I wouldn't say there's too much of a difference between this year and last year. I think this year we're learning a little bit newer technique to help us out a little bit in playing aggressively on those [one-on-one] islands."
Teague said this defense is more aggressive than last year's from the secondary standpoint. That's a staple of most 3-4 defenses, but for the Vols to be as aggressive as they'd like, they'll need to improve at corner. It's the same cast from last season, when it was a trouble spot.
Whether is was getting beat deep or in yards after the catch, UT was susceptible to big passing plays. The Vols allowed 13 plays of 30-plus yards last season. Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell, LSU's Rueben Randle and Alabama's Marquis Maze all burned Teague, and Waggner was victimized by Alabama's Kenny Bell for a long touchdown.
UT's corners don't have time to dwell on the past with a new defense in front of them.
"We're putting in a lot of extra time," Teague said. "We go as a group, get our meeting times in and try to help each other out there on the field as much as we can to ease the process for us."
Having a seasoned player such as Waggner in the back is another way to ease that process.
"Having a guy like Prentiss is like having another coach," Randolph said. "It's amazing how he picks up the game. He just knows the game, so if you have any questions, you can just ask Pre. That's a big advantage for us young guys."
Said safety Byron Moore: "It helps out a lot having Prentiss back there. He's a real smart player. He knows how to pick up defenses real quick, so whenever we're in doubt, sometimes we can look to him and ask him. He'll know right away. He just helps us out a lot playing back there."
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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