KNOXVILLE - The picking and choosing reached a tipping point, and Daniel Gray finally got his shot at meaningful playing time.
More could be on the way for Tennessee's freshman cornerback.
The Volunteers tossed the speedy rookie out on the field for the entire fourth quarter in place of fifth-year senior Prentiss Waggner in the loss to South Carolina, and after working with the first-team defense in practice all this week, Gray could start Saturday's game against visiting Troy.
"He was a pleasant surprise," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "He's gifted. Gifts are not the issue.
"You don't want a kid getting out there his first couple of plays and he gives up a big play and now you kill his confidence for the rest of the year. We had to pick and choose when we put him in there, and at some point we just said, 'OK, let's play him.' He got in there for 20 plays in the fourth quarter and did well."
A final decision will come some time Saturday morning, but all indications are the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Gray will make his first start. It's unlikely he single-handedly will save Tennessee's ailing secondary, but the Vols have little to lose in seeing what the Florida native can do. No passes were thrown in his direction against South Carolina, but he did shed a downfield block and make a touchdown-saving tackle on a long catch-and-run by Gamecocks tight end Justice Cunningham.
A three-star prospect from the Miami area, Gray chose Tennessee over West Virginia, Nebraska and Texas Tech. After he began playing football his junior season at Boyd Anderson High School, Gray clocked a 4.32-second time in the 40-yard dash at the Under Armour All-American combine in 2011. He's played in six games this season on special teams and in mop-up duty at corner.
"One quality that he has that you have to have as a DB is he don't really care who he's going against," Ansley said. "He's very confident in himself, and he has a short memory. If he gets beat in practice, he comes back and he's going to line up again and go play.
"He's got what we call that dog mentality: He doesn't care who he's going up against. He's up for the challenge. If you've got that quality, then a coach can kind of coach the technique in you if you're not afraid to get out there on the island by yourself."
Pig the passer
Freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard had his most productive game against South Carolina. The 5-foot-8, 185-pounder from Orlando, Fla., caught a key fourth-down pass in the second half and threw a touchdown pass out of the wildcat package. He caught another pass in the game and ran the ball once one a reverse.
"That tends to be the problem with every talented little player is ... how do you get him the ball and how can creative can you get based on their aptitude to learn things," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "Pig has a very good football aptitude. He understands football and he gets it, so it's pretty simple to find things for him and ways to get him the ball.
"We've got to continue to do that. You don't want to strive so far away from your base offense that you can't run your base plays. That's always the harmony we're looking for."
Howard was a four-star recruit who impressed during summer workouts, but foot surgery in July postponed him settling into the role Tennessee envisioned him filling.
"We've got special things where we put him at different positions and do stuff with him," receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. "He continues to get better at route-running and doing everything that he's doing. He's getting better and better and better as a true freshman."
A staple on Tennessee's special-teams units, Rod Wilks might be pushing for more chances at safety. The fifth-year senior split first-team work with regular starter Byron Moore this week after playing some against South Carolina. Wilks led the Vols in special-teams tackles last season.
Safeties coach Josh Conklin said Wilks could see more reps on defense as the Vols try to manage the wear and tear on freshman LaDarrell McNeil.
"I think that Rod has maybe been a little bit disappointed how this season has gone for him and not being able to take as many reps as he thinks," Conklin said, "but he's gotten better every week. When you talk about the experience, he has game reps, and he really has been a light on our defense. I've been really proud of Rod as far as how he's approached it the last three weeks.
"There's some merit to getting him out on the field, and I think we need to do that and get him some more reps."
Vincent Dallas caught his first career touchdown pass against South Carolina and finished with 78 yards on three catches to match his 2011 reception total in one game. The sophomore switched to defense and practiced at corner during summer workouts and preseason practice, but Da'Rick Rogers' exit prompted a move back to offense.
"He got to play receiver all spring, and he was there grinding through the whole offense, so he knew it pretty well," Hinshaw said. "I'm really proud of Vincent Dallas' attitude. He wasn't getting balls earlier in the games, and he kept working to get better at being a receiver.
"When your number's called, you'll go and make plays, and that's what happened on Saturday. When he went over DB all camp, it was actually really good work for him to understand what the DBs are trying to do and how they're trying to put hands on you and the technique they're using. He's used that to his advantage to get open and make plays."