KNOXVILLE - Brent Brewer smiled as he declared himself 100-percent healthy and better than before.
Leaner and fully recovered from a significant knee injury, the Tennessee junior ultimately hopes his path ends full circle with him back along the Volunteers' last line of defense.
"Everything feels great," Brewer, looking much closer to his listed weight of 214 pounds, said Sunday afternoon after UT's third training-camp practice. "My movement and strength are a lot better. I hadn't really talking to anybody who's been through [it], so I didn't know what to expect."
What he can expect, though, is a stiff challenge for a starting safety spot from a confident Byron Moore. The two left spring practice bracketed as co-starters alongside Brian Randolph, who was the Vols' fifth-leading tackler and an SEC All-Freshman team selection last season. While the competition may not be UT's most heated, it still bears watching as camp continues.
Moore's UT career got off to a slow start after he arrived last summer from a California junior college. He struggled with his weight, and the Vols put him at nickelback, where he started twice. Moore, who redshirted his first season at Southern Cal before leaving two summers ago, worked exclusively at safety in the spring.
"I just feel more at home now," he said. "I'm more adjusted to the system and the program. I just feel comfortable not really worrying about transitioning and coming from California this summer [having] already been here for a year.
"I just feel more prepared this knowing what to look forward to, and now it's just learning a new defense under [coordinator Sal Sunseri] and getting all the kinks out."
Coach Derek Dooley said Moore has "shown a lot of improvement" and added the junior could be a "dependable" player at either safety spot. Behind Randolph, Moore, Brewer and fifth-year senior journeyman Rod Wilks, the Vols have a handful of newcomers through whom they're still sorting. Sunseri's defense rolls one safety or the other instead of using the strong and free labels.
"I always think you're better at your position the more you understand the other position," Dooley said, "because when you really understand something, it means you know what to do, you know how to do it, the technique, and then you know why it's important to do it that way.
"Just memorizing, 'I do this on this,' that's good, but if you really understand why it's important to do it that way, then when things break down, you know how to react better. The guys who usually play the best know the most, and they know the most positions. They understand it all."
Moore said he left spring practice feeling he had a good grasp of the new schemes, and he spent the summer watching spring's practices to further his learning.
"My confidence was real high," he said. "It gave me a lot of a confidence boost heading into the summer, so I felt real good all summer through workouts, getting my body right, getting stronger, getting faster. I was just looking forward to getting back out here to continue to build on that momentum I had coming out of spring."
Brewer tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against South Carolina in October, and though he went through spring in a non-contact jersey, it hardly held him back from playing full speed. The 24-year-old former minor-league baseball player started 14 straight games before his injury but struggled to meet expectations as a sophomore. He began spring practice working at outside linebacker before the Vols moved him back to safety to better protect his healing knee.
"The thing I've seen is he's leaner, and so he's moving better," Dooley said. "He was a little bit lethargic at times [last season], but he was big. He was almost a linebacker, but he leaned up this summer and he's playing faster.
"Hopefully he'll be able to pick it all up and make up for what he missed this spring."
Said Brewer: "I'm just going out and playing. They're going to put the best players on the field. That's all I can say."
His smile already said enough.