KNOXVILLE - An unsettling performance has Tennessee shuffling its secondary for Saturday night's game against Akron.
The Volunteers released some depth-chart changes before Thursday morning's practice, and the most notable switch was the insertion of sophomore Justin Coleman into the starting lineup at cornerback ahead of Marsalis Teague.
The move hardly comes as a surprise given the senior's rough night against the Gators. He missed on a fumble recovery 3 yards from Tennessee's end zone, committed a personal-foul penalty and failed to make a tackle on two long Gators touchdown. Monday, coach Derek Dooley hinted the Vols might look at changes in the secondary.
"We're going to keep promoting competition," he said. "We had an opportunity to prevent some of those big plays from happening, and we didn't do it. We need the young guys to come on."
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound Coleman, who started four games in 2011, has just one tackle in three appearances so far this season and lost his starting job after two games last season for allowing some long pass plays before later returning to the lineup.
Brendan Downs is back on the depth chart as Mychal Rivera's backup at tight end after the sophomore returned sooner than expected from a dislocated kneecap he suffered last month. Vincent Dallas now is listed as a backup at one receiver spot. He replaced freshman Cody Blanc, who did not play against Florida after appearing in the season's first two games.
Neal's next step
Tailback Rajion Neal's 23-carry, 87-yard performance against Florida was a bit of a bright spot for the Vols, as the 5-foot-11, 211-pound showed little hesitation and ran more up the middle than he has at any point this season.
"The majority of them I felt I got what I could," he said. "It was some where I got shoestring tackled, just getting excited getting out there in the open field. It's never a perfect game, and there was things I still seen that I need to work on.
"I feel that'll just come with time and definitely help us win more games. I was happy with my performance, but to be honest at the end of the day I wanted to win so bad. I want to do everything I can on my half to help this team be successful and win."
The junior will start again Saturday night, and running backs coach Jay Graham wants to see more consistency and more broken tackles from Neal.
"Let's do it on every run," Graham said. "It's just being patient with it, and I have to be patient as a coach. He's been doing a good job.
"More consistently going straight ahead, playing up under his pads -- that's for all of us. That's the only way we can break tackles, and when you play in the SEC, you're going to play against good defenses and you're going to get hit at the line of scrimmage. You better have your pad leverage in a place where if you get hit, you're going to fall forward and gain [more] yards."
Receivers coach Darin Hinshaw conveyed some disappointment and surprise in two costly drops from Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson that kept things going downhill against Florida.
"We expect to make all the plays," Hinshaw said. "You've got to say, 'Well, why didn't we make the play?' We made a lot of plays during the game, and there's three you wish you had back."
On Patterson's near one-handed catch, Hinshaw suggested he should have used both hands. On Hunter's third-down drop, Hinshaw said the junior didn't flip his hands quickly enough to catch a ball thrown near his stomach. Hunter said any punishment for drops is handled by the individual, though the Vols do chart drops in practices and games.
"It's been phenomenal," Hinshaw said. "We have not had many drops. We've done a really good job of securing the football, and we've done a really good job with catching the football.
"In that game right there, it was just three plays that we wish we had back."
After making his debut against Florida, freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard expects to make his first real impact against Akron. Foot surgery in July sidelined the 5-8, 185-pound Howard, who made his debut as a slot receiver. The Vols also have worked him in a wildcat package.
"He's practiced really, really hard this week," Hinshaw said. "A lot more reps this week than he had last week getting ready to play this week. He's fast.
"He has elusiveness, and he's got power when he is running the football, when he's running with the football, catching the football and all those kinds of things that make him special at his size."
After Wednesday's practice, coaches continued to suggest safety LaDarrell McNeil and cornerbacks Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray would be given more opportunities Saturday. It helps that Akron passes about 50 times a game, but the Vols want to see more from their freshmen. The coaches like the trio's talent and want to see them in live action.
"There's a good chance that a lot of the faces that we haven't seen as far as the three games are concerned, we'll see them this weekend," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "All those guys are making progress. They're going to be getting in the mix pretty soon and get a chance to go out there and show what they can do."
All three have played on special teams, where the coaches have been able to evaluate some of their physical skills and intangibles. The Vols like Bonner and Gray's speed and agility. McNeil, who's nearly blocked two punts and made a key fake-punt stop against Florida, was Tennessee's highest-rated high school signee in February.
"It's just a matter of getting him live reps," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "I think the reps he's taken on special teams has helped his confidence in getting out there this week. What I want to see from him is put the extra time in and continue to develop as a football player and continue to gain confidence so when you get out there your mind doesn't go blank.
"He's a very instinctive guy. He can make plays and show up when you don't think he's going to. He's as advertised the type of guy you want to play at the safety position, especially in the middle of the field."