published Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Justin Coleman coverage improving for Tennessee Vols

Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman, right, intercepts a pass meant for Cody Blanc during a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Tennessee defensive back Justin Coleman, right, intercepts a pass meant for Cody Blanc during a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Justin Coleman found himself in a familiar situation.

As the football spiraled through the air toward the end zone, the Tennessee cornerback was in single coverage against its intended receiver.

It's a position in which Coleman was put many times last season, only to see the ball land in the hands of the player he was trying to defend. Most of the time, Coleman couldn't make the play when presented the opportunity.

"I'm definitely trying to focus on my flaws, and my flaw was finishing," he said long after another such chance came during Tennessee's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. "I was always in a good position to make a play, but I didn't make it. This year I'm going to try to change that and make a play every time I get the chance."

It's unlikely any plays Coleman makes in the 2013 season will surpass the spectacular leaping one-handed snag he made Saturday, when he impressively plucked what looked to be sure a touchdown pass from quarterback Justin Worley to Cody Blanc out of the air.

"One of the best plays I've seen in a long time," Volunteers coach Butch Jones called it.

In rehashing the play, Coleman focused more on the beginning, when Blanc beat him off the line of scrimmage, than the finish. He spent the night before the scrimmage with some other defensive backs working on some drills that he said translated into Saturday's play. It's a payoff Coleman hopes to cash in more in the future.

"I feel like I've made a lot of progress with my technique," said the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Georgian. "I've basically been working on my finish, and the other thing is my leadership. I've been trying to talk to these corners, show them how to finish and show them how to give more effort, because we've been struggling with effort.

"We've been missing tackles and not running across the field to the ball, and that's when big plays happen."

They also happen when corners can't make plays in one-on-one coverage, which was a problem for the Vols last season. Though Tennessee played too much man-to-man coverage, the players struggled to make plays when in position to make them. Though Coleman finished fourth on the team in tackles with 59 stops, he broke up only three passes with no interceptions in a dozen games.

It's now water under the bridge for Tennessee's secondary.

"I understand they've been beat down," Jones said after a practice last week. "Completely understand that, but that's over with, and we need somebody to step up and hold each other accountable. As you saw today and will continue [to do], we're going to try to attack them.

"The mentally toughest position on the field is the corner. You're on the island. It's one-on-one on every snap."

Coleman is at the front of the position line. He's played the most, and behind him this spring are junior college transfer Riyahd Jones, sophomore Daniel Gray and fifth-year senior Naz Oliver. Those three have zero career SEC starts.

Secondary coach Willie Martinez said he's seen more consistency and a more noticeable maturity level from Coleman than some other defensive backs.

"Justin Coleman's a quiet individual," Jones said, "and a lot of times it's great if you're not being noticed at corner, because that means you're doing a good job. We're going to need him to really step up. I would like to see him take more of a leadership role in the back end.

"We need some individuals in the back end of our defense to really step up and lead a group with the standard and the expectations."

Though he's aware of the calls to lead from his coaches, the soft-spoken Coleman admitted he has some trepidation.

"There's some times where I don't feel real confident in what I'm doing," he explained, "so I guess I kind of hold back because I don't want to get onto these guys when I'm doing wrong.

"I guess I can change that by just getting onto them, forcing me to do right."

Make more plays like the one he made Saturday, and Coleman may gain that necessary confidence.

"He's a guy that's making plays," safety Byron Moore said. "I think he's making more plays than I've seen him make since he's been at Tennessee, so I'm proud of him. He's come a long way.

"He's not where he needs to be, but he's definitely one of our most consistent players back there in the back end."

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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