KNOXVILLE — During his first two seasons at Tennessee, Justin Coleman would have to wait his turn to go through a drill in practice.
Though a starter in more than half the games he's played in his career, the 5-foot-10, 184-pound cornerback would be third or fourth in line behind some of the Volunteers' older options.
As a junior, Coleman now finds himself at the head of the line.
"It's always pressure, but I'm trying to help the younger guys and even the older guys," he said Friday after practice. "I try to show them how to do right and try to show them how to do it. I'm one of the people who have been here a while, and I know how to do the drills right.
"The thing that changed the most is my mentality. I'm thinking about doing everything to the best of my ability. I was really thinking about trying to do things right so I can lead these boys down the right path."
Behind Coleman in line are true freshmen Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman and junior college transfer Riyahd Jones, a trio with zero career starts at the NCAA level.
Though nearly by default, Jones earned a starting spot in spring practice before injuring his knee, and he's struggled enough in camp that he was playing with the Vols' third-team defense Friday.
The 6-1, 180-pound Sutton, a three-sport star and three-star football recruit at Jonesboro (Ga.) High School, was the first freshman to earn the right to have the black stripe removed from his helmet and has worked with Tennessee's starting defense.
Foreman also has received praise from Tennessee's first-year coaching staff.
Secondary coach Willie Martinez wants them following Coleman's lead.
"If you're watching J-Cole, you're going to be good," he yelled at his defensive backs during one drill earlier this preseason.
Head coach Butch Jones echoed that sentiment after Friday's practice.
"They need to model their games after Justin Coleman in terms of the way he prepares for practice day in and day out," he said. "He's the leader of that group. He takes coaching. He's a starter on every special teams. He has great endurance.
"He has the mindset of a corner. He's intense on every single rep, and he's competing to get better each and every day, and I can't say enough about Justin Coleman. He's probably our most consistent performer right now on defense."
As a freshman, Coleman was up and down, starting the first two games before being benched but returning to the starting lineup later in the season. He supplanted Marsalis Teague, a senior, as a starter in the fourth game of his sophomore year and started Tennessee's final nine games. He was the Vols' fourth-leading tackler in 2012 but has yet to record his first career interception.
Now he's the only experienced option in easily the least experienced group on the Vols' defense.
"I salute him," receiver Pig Howard said. "He's played physical each and every day. He's gotten better over time, and I see a lot of those younger guys following him. I just think he's stepped up big-time this camp and this summer. This spring he stayed consistent all throughout, so he's doing good."
Coleman said he's emphasized fine-tuning his technique and playing through fatigue, and he understands the responsibility of going first.
"I'm a little experienced, so I've seen a lot of bad things happen and I've been through it," he said. "My key thing is just basically doing everything right, as in listening to the coaches, watching film, getting in there and watching more film with the younger guys.
"It's a tad bit different, but like everybody says, it's pressure, and I've got to learn how to handle that pressure."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...